This is the second in the series of reviews I am posting over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2018 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).
The full 2018 shortlist is:
Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet)
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber)
Its publisher, Carcanet, describes Phoebe Power’s debut collection like this: “Wandering in central Europe, a traveller observes and records a landscape”. I guess this is meant to conjure the rootlessness and identity-angst of a modern Euro-existentialist but, for me, Shrines of Upper Austria, too often reads like the jottings of a year-abroad student. The posture is almost always of the naif – impressed, even a bit bewildered by the strangeness she finds, yet she tries hard to absorb and/or be absorbed into the foreign culture yet manages little more than a tourist’s view (if one with a striking ability to ventriloquise and a remote familial backstory in that country).
Power raises the humble note or jotting to an ars poetica, often collaging together such “brief records of points, usually used as an aide memoire” into disjointed sequences which don’t gather much cumulatively or possess much divinable direction. One of these has a protagonist in a café, his right hand on the “open pages of an empty notepad”. It’s not the author, of course, but the distanced observation this image implies is what the book mostly offers. Simply because what is being described has a European setting does not make ‘fasching’, for example, very interesting: “at Elli’s schmankerlstube it’s all / drinking and bosners” (End notes translate for us where required: here, a carnival before Lent; a snack bar; a type of sausage). The poem begins with these two lines of verse then resorts to prose for a couple of short paragraphs. There’s drinking, dancing, children, teachers, music and a “multicoloured snake or train of people tooting its bells and flute, curving down the road beneath the green banks and a big sky, the mountains”. I can see such a passage in many a poet’s notebook but the clichés and obvious word choices surely need more working up? And if the improvisatory quality is the point, then I wish the brief apercu had a good deal more striking ‘apercevoir’ about it. Likewise, an ekphrastic poem, ‘children’, baldly describes an Egon Schiele painting while trying to get a bit more emotional leverage with frequent exclamation marks.
The note-taker in the café, appears in the poem sequence, ‘Austrian Murder Case’, which reads like a series of (prose) screenplay notes for an all-too familiar Scandi-noir that the director has torn the best bits out of: a dull quotidian town, a moody disengaged observer, lumpen exposition from the pension owner, a woman’s dismembered body in suitcases in a lake, her husband, the murderer, does himself in at the same time. The note-taking protagonist walks away having gained some “insight into one dramatic story” and for that I’m a bit envious. The best bit of all this is the lake (“the See”) which is personified and perceiving in ways beyond the limitedly human, the humans being left at the end trying to fit bits of the story together. It’s all a bit obvious.
You will have gathered that one of Power’s things is to mix English and Austrian German. This happens several times in ‘A Tour of Shrines of Upper Austria’ (though in this book we only get 7 parts of the full sequence). An observer stops at various shrine sites, jotting down some thoughts and taking a picture or two. Nothing is developed though Power’s poems do show an interest in religion on several other occasions. ‘The Moving Swan’ opens with a centre-justified prose description of candles flickering in a cathedral and another poem is drawn to the grave of two goats, observing: “two heaps of ivy/straw / one unlit red tealight”. And ‘Epiphany Night’ is a more extended series of notes recording a local celebration with bells, dressing-up, boats, lanterns. This is all observed in loosely irregular lines by the narrator from her “wohnung” (apartment). To wring all engagement or emotional or imaginative response from such a text is, I suppose, quite an achievement but to spend 70-odd pages in such company really is wearisome.
Power’s playing with her two languages is unusual and there are occasions when her poems read as poor, incomplete translations into English. This draws attention to the poet’s materials – language/s – as in ‘Epiphany’ again: “step down drei konige / in fancy robe and blackface paint”. In ‘Installation for a New Baby’ the effect is more comical and perhaps reflects the muddled perceptions of such an occasion: “We save soup cans, bean and veg tins / to clatter where they trail the grass, / pin a spray of rubber dummies and a / pillow, sagging rain”. And ‘8th May’ has a Google Translate feel to it: “bells are ringing, there’s a fire / sailboats calmly over the lake”. Perhaps the problem with these experiments is that we never know who the “protagonist”, the speaker, is. When Power ventriloquises more explicitly the effects are startling as in ‘Isis and Marija’. Again, mixing verse and prose, this short poem conveys Isis’ concerns about her own name (she’s from Columbia and speaks Spanish) and Marija’s more dominating personality and immigrant background: “My mother come first from Croatia for one year. Then we all come. I live in a hotel, five minutes”. Here, the buckle and twist of the language is effective in illuminating the two girls’ uneasy residence in Austria. For an older Italian woman, ‘Georgiana’ does the same in the same way: “she sets up, gets the car, / takes German class and speaks / fast with a curly accent she won’t change”.
Power’s ‘doing different voices’ also occurs in the longer sequence which circles around events in which her grandmother, whose name was Chris or Christl, was found abandoned as a baby in Austria, taken in by a family (but not properly adopted) then came to Britain after WW2. Other sections suggest that the author/protagonist has later returned to Austria in search of her origins., and/or is living for a while near Gmunden in Austria. There’s a fair bit of historical and biographical exposition needed and this gives Power’s style of notation room to switch from verse to prose and back again. It’s the pieces in Christl’s demotic voice that stand out: “now I’m a bit mad at me mam, never adopted me properly, why not?” Elsewhere, her ignorance of the existence of concentration camps is stunning as is her clumsily expressed and moving sense of the fragility of her own survival: “It’s funny life when you think you get born, you weren’t here before, then you die and it’s just, you’re not there anymore”. It’s this sequence (pp. 41–52) that you should start from when you read this book.
Unfortunately, the collection trails away towards the end because, like any GCSE Modern Languages project worth its salt, there has to be section addressing Climate Change. I’m not sure what Julie Andrews would make of ‘silver white winters that melt into springs’ but its two prose passages do little more than portray a before and after climate change. Also ‘notes on climate change’ is pretty much what it says in the title and, strangely, Christl’s voice begins to recur here too: “When I came to England first the weather was really / warm and I thought it’s warm in England nice here not so cold”. ‘Milk’ is an amusing, enjoyable prose piece detailing familiar anxieties about products like milk which adversely affect the environment though the irony that our avoidance strategies usually give rise to further problems is a bit obvious.
The closing poem is one of several in which Power interleaves two differing voices on alternate lines. I hear Christl’s voice here again, seeming to lament leaving Austria and perhaps the second voice is her granddaughter’s who might have been Austrian in another version of history. The result is a poignant sense of not quite belonging “here” but also of not really belonging “somewhere else”. It is this rootlessness that lies behind all of Powers’ poems. Not being at home in the world is an important and contemporary topic and, when she earths this in voices of specific characters, this works well. But too many of these poems record fragments without meaning without any attitude to those fragments without meaning. To end positively, ‘In and Out of Europe’ is a very good poem where the disjointed lives of grandmother and granddaughter are again aligned. But, on this occasion, it is during the June 2016 Brexit vote and the shared history of the family’s international link here has a much more profound significance and Power’s notes and jottings leap off the page with a purpose.