This is the second in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique) and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).
The 2017 shortlist is:
Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing)
Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here
Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)
Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)
Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)
Many thanks to Eyewear Publishing for providing a copy of Maria Apichella’s book for review purposes.
A psalmody is a collection of psalms – sacred hymns or songs – or the act of singing such songs. In Reflections on the Psalms (1964), C. S. Lewis argued the psalms of the Old Testament are poems: “not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons [but] lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry”. Maria Apichella’s Psalmody adheres to this to some degree but also comes with a massive dose of narrative and characterization which too often conjures up bad romantic novels. This uneasy cocktail is integral to the whole project. Apichella has said she wanted to “write my own Psalms; that is, poems as authentic prayer [. . .] speech acts which called out to God, the self and the world [. . . ] without being kitsch, or ironic”. She also intended to tell “a contemporary story about the love between an atheist and a Christian”.
She chooses to do this in a very readable, even racy, form of free verse in the voice of the young Christian woman (like Apichella, she seems to be a post-graduate student, studying the Psalms, at Aberystwyth University). The love interest is David, a Welsh squaddie, home on leave from a vague posting “in flatlands, sand, thudding heat”. The 93 poems make a great play of being rooted in the everyday, most notably through an almost obsessive itemizing of food and cooking, a delight in everyday slang and bathetic details – Lidls, Barclays, the Bus Stop, Aberystwyth in general – while also addressing Apichella’s chosen religious questions. When it works the effect is brave and begins to heal the rift between the material and spiritual that deforms our modern world; when it doesn’t work it’s like watching your Dad dancing. Psalmody sacrifices a lot to appear relevant. Surprisingly, this collection reminded me of Ted Hughes’ Gaudete – also a mix of speedy narrative and spiritual intent. These days most critics don’t rate Hughes’ narrative but they do praise the brief, prayer-like poems (based on Kannadan vacanas) that conclude the book. Apichella’s more psalm-like pieces are scattered throughout the narrative, but are worth searching out (for example, poems 26, 28, 44, 45, 55, 57, 72, 74).
So – girl meets boy. Besides gender, the two are set up as complete contrasts. She is a “pale believer”, he’s a “Godless” folk singer; he’s a “narrow-minded atheist”, she’s a “holy-roller”; he likes jazz, she likes the psalms; she likes The Protecting Veil, he still likes jazz (Miles Davis especially). She’s angsty, tense, rather reclusive; he’s calm, kind and talks domineeringly. And couples are like this – and I can see these stereotypes have a larger, symbolic purpose – but the female narrative voice slips so easily into a Mills and Boon mode. David’s face is like “corn-stubble”; he is “chisel / copper / grizzle”; he’s a “pebble of strength” (this when he introduces her to his middle-class mother); he likes his coffee strong, though he’s “soothing / as tea, strong as a leather arm / chair”. The term ‘mansplaining’ might have been invented for David and our heroine often feels “he’s right (about so many things. / More clear and kind than I)”. To give Apichella her due, there are limits to this, especially later on. David is called a “wife” because, though he does fix a dripping tap, he also “roasts chicken / for a saffron paella”. The narrator does begin to challenge David as the relationship develops, but the first half of the book can feel like wading through some very thick, treacle-y, gender stereotyping at times.
The challenge initially is that David’s bluff, masculine, physical, atheistic presence troubles and changes the female narrator. To begin with, she is clear that her faith defines her. Driving to a party, psalms run through her head, “whispering like a cassette”. Her interest in David is expressed through asking “Does he know the Lord?” As much as he is defined and confined by his military role, she also believes the same about her religious belief: “Love’s the law I obey”. In Poem 10 she describes herself as “a Monastery carved into a granite hill” (she also compares herself to Aberystwyth’s Constitution Hill, another rocky outcrop) and the psalms surface once more: they “bubble / with words free from context, emptied of time and place, / as I wish to be”.
The self-regarding quality of such comments and their absolutism prepare the reader for change. David arrives in cycling shorts, hairy legs, noisily spilling things, liking raw mushrooms, not following recipes, quoting Dylan Thomas’ “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. The two are surprisingly drawn to each other. David besieges her in an unlikely conversation:
Stony one. You are
They are full of men,
If you are,
you must let me in.
I am all these and more”
She explicitly grapples with what is happening as a battle between Eros and Agape, the former initially termed “ridiculous”, the latter is “the anchor / I cannot lose”. Perilously echoing a thousand romantic novels again, she slowly accepts Eros and the body as “good” and ultimately “Holy”, though Eyewear’s blurb’s promise of “vivid eroticism” is hardly accurate; more typical is the comment, “Why will you kiss me but not finish the job?”
A second gap in the text is exactly what sort of religious faith the young woman adheres to. Poems 45 – 47, record her taking David to church, insisting “If David won’t hear me worship / he’ll never know the core of me”. David surprisingly seems embarrassed by the expressiveness of her worship and the occasion distances the lovers from each other. Her personal faith is discussed using the catch-all term “numinous”, glossed as a sense of interconnectedness, of “webbed dimensions”, a filling of “all that can be filled”, a “merging” and perhaps the slow unlocking of the monastery to a stronger erotic sense is consistent with this. But the woman also retains her belief that David himself is in need of religion. For me there’s little in the text to suggest this, other than her insisting that he is “blind”, that he “may be lost”, but more importantly perhaps – and a third gap in the text – is the absence of any discussion of the nature of evil, in contrast to the numinous good, and David’s military connections would surely offer fertile ground for such a debate.
David returns to his military duties later in the book. What he does is again left vague, if not downright evasive:
[His] job’s all jargon, bullet-
holed paper work.
[. . .] plans to occupy, re-make cities,
countries, traditions, bedrooms.
His own description is “cartographer” or “paper-pusher”. The book ducks the real challenge here. As a woman of faith, the narrator’s issues would surely be more with David’s complicity in war, death and destruction than with whether she takes him to bed, to church or gets him to like the music of John Tavener. Unfortunately, David’s singing and his warrior status have more to do with linking him symbolically with David, the singer of the Psalms, and they create complications for the reader that Apichella does not engage with.
It’s a surprise when the relationship resumes. David returns (vaguely, “Wounded”). I take Poem 88, making a virtue of his bluntness, to be recording his voice:
it turns out
I want you,
the fannying about.
He now seems to accept his need for spiritual guidance: “Your words are direct as a good map”. She accepts him back in the most cryptic line in the book: “David’s an atheist after God’s own heart”. I like the paradox; but I can’t make much sense of it. Apichella’s recurrent and usually grounding food imagery also reaches a strange apogee here. She is imaged as a fallen apple; David a carrot. The powerful, pleading imperatives of the Biblical Psalms are re-deployed here to ask for a greater power to turn them both, to merge them both, into an apple and carrot salad. I kid you not.
I have tried hard with this collection. Its intention to interrogate “love and faith in the contemporary world” interests me. The idea of re-writing the Psalms for a modern context is exciting. But the artistic choice of the romantic narrative proves inappropriate and exerts too much of its own stereotyping gravity. Nor do I feel Apichella is wholly in control of the tone, irony and symbolism she uses or takes David’s military role seriously enough. Her ambition is to be applauded but a recent collection like Hilary Davies’ Exile and the Kingdom more successfully tackles many of these issues. (I reviewed Davies’ book in January 2017 and have also posted an interview with her).
Apichella’s narrator concludes by admitting her talents are not in music but her ambition is still to “roar / a song” and her greatest strength is her ability to “respond”. Psalmody is not yet the roar but if really responsive – if Apichella can more convincingly come down off the “granite hill” – I will be eager to read her next collection.