2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Stephen Sexton’s ‘If All the World and Love Were Young’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for 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 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins) – reviewed here.

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus) – reviewed here.

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

 

This year’s Forward First Collection shortlist is astonishingly good but, for its cleverness, its ambition and coherence, its technical mastery and above all for its vulnerability in dealing with the eternal themes of childhood, love and loss, death, time and memory, I hope Stephen Sexton’s book wins the award in October. It’s a curious read in some ways – superficially fast and easy, its technical brilliance well hidden, its narrative quite buried though not really hard to trace, its emotional heft at times blunt and utterly naked, at others complex and many-layered.

Halfway through the book, in ‘Forest of Illusion 2’, Sexton recalls fishing for rainbow trout with some success. The bait is taken and “with a flick / of the wrist [he] hoisted the fish from one world and into the next”. It’s this kind of transition that is the subject of the whole book though the direction of travel is clearer in the recurrent images of young Icarus. The boy who thought he could fly near the sun (filtered through Breughel and then through Auden) is aptly evoked in this poetic bildungsroman of a boy struggling with the traumatic transition from innocence to experience.

The book’s title is the opening line of Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ in which the Nymph rejects her suitor’s optimistically seductive blandishments:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,

Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:

In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

But Sexton’s particular withering is not one of romantic love but the loss of a mother to cancer and by the end of the book, the wriggle room implied by Ralegh’s opening word, ‘If’, is significantly altered to the much more brutal ‘when’. This is no hypothetical idyll but an actual, remembered one and the loss of it is unavoidable. The post-conclusion, coda-poem, ‘Yoshi’s House’, turns upon the reader with a compassionate yet clear warning: “some day dear friend [you will find] my sad head upon on your shoulders” (sic).

Sexton has written a genuine, contemporary long poem (not a long assemblage of lyrics). His lines are 16 syllables in length throughout, yielding a prosy, chatty, fluid sort of voice which avoids the risk of drag by keeping the reader on our toes by a relative absence of punctuation and a penchant for eliding two thoughts or images together in one single line. This generates occasional moments of misreading, but it is also the technical reflection of Sexton’s focus on the translation of innocence into the darkening of experience. The heard voice is quick, erudite and briskly allusive; despite being mostly in the present tense, it is not wholly the naïve voice of the child. The other aspect of the whole poem this fluid transitioning relates to is the exploration of the child’s obsession with the fantasy world of his computer games and the way he must slide from one world (on a screen) to the one we call ‘real’.

The computer games are specifically the Nintendo games of the 1990s which give the sections their odd names – Yoshi’s Island, Donut Plains, Vanilla Dome, Valley of Bowser – and account for individual poems’ titles, some of which I have already referred to. The games may be out of date but Sexton’s evident knowledge of them (love of them) means part of the originality of this book is they are fully integrated into the composition of the poems and raise questions about how absorbing such fantasy worlds can be and how the facts of reality are to be negotiated and reconciled successfully (perhaps, particularly by boys who seem so drawn to the former and so easily in denial about the latter).

Sexton’s own story is given in a Note and the poem called ‘Yoshi’s Island 1’. In the summer of 1998, his mother took a photograph of him, back to the camera, squatting before a TV, the family garden just glimpsed out of a window to the left. Here already, the screen world and the outside world through the window are juxtaposed. The boy is keener on the former:

Here spotted mountain and cirrus here sloping plateaux drawn down

carnivorous plants and no sun gold by the cherish underground

fly agaric throbs everywhere with fire plants and dinosaurs.

The vivid, colourful, playful and safe fantasy worlds of Nintendo – its caricatures, its rules – is one of escape:

On Kappa Mountain past the great lake circumscribed with goldenrod

the abandoned palace is full of treasure glowing underground

in granaries and arsenals and economy of losses

and gains the beloved is gone but there is always the story.

 

The man looking back at his younger self passes judgement: “one of the worlds I live in is as shallow as a pane of glass”. But this shallowness is immediately challenged when the child is told of his mother’s illness, of “cells which split and glitch”. The following poem has thoughts of his (real) father interrupting (if only for one line) in his screen time:

. . . for the first time in some time I thought of our father at home

the Sirocco in from the south turtle doves in the huge wheat fields

‘#1 Iggy’s Castle’ suggests the same thing: in the midst of oceans of lava, fantastical islands and cartoonish incinerations, the boy hears his mother moving about the house, a woman in real pain, “whose feet whose toes / whose hands whose fingers whose ankles whose head she says are on fire”.

Within 20 pages or so, a poem appears which resides wholly in the ‘real’ world of a family visit to the Ulster Hospital and a visit to McDonald’s since his mother “has lost her sense of taste”. The narrative suggests there follows a period of respite. The doctors – in the boy’s mind they come and go as wizard-like Merlins “in blue scrubs” – remove the cancer. Though back at home his mother remains weak and unsteady so the boy concocts a “mess in a tray” for the school bake sale. In awkward self-defence, he acknowledges, “No one is going to like this [. . .] but I have done my best”. His observation obviously has a far wider application in the circumstances, and one of Sexton’s great achievements in the poem – in amongst the allusiveness and technical skill – is to be as open and vulnerable as this. In ‘#5 Roy’s Castle’ he recalls his mother working “her old-fashioned Singer”. Roy Orbison is on the radio. She is making curtains for the room “she’ll in future return to” when she has become ill. The way time collapses in on itself in such a Wordsworthian ‘spot of time’, the way in which “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future”, is expressed with devastating simplicity: “the sewing machine ticks so fast these small years go by in minutes”.

But the cancer has returned. ‘Choco-Ghost House’ is unique in that we hear Sexton’s mother’s voice, nervously complaining of a “pain in my side like a bird in a holly tree”. Her son, still half inhabiting his fantasy world of wizards and exotic settings, is perhaps now starting to use that experience to get a handle on what is really happening. The doctor – now a “Hippocrates” figure – is described as going about “the magic task / of grinding down a rhino’s horn to infuse with ground down rubies”. Even these sorts of quasi-defensive imaginings are eventually dropped and the bald reportage of a last hospital bedside conversation between mother and child is almost too painful to read. The long syllabic lines here have room for the hesitations and repetitions of such emotionally-charged moments without any ironic distancing:

It’s me I’m here is what I say but I am not since she is not.

Then she says I want to go home once more for one once more one night

and I say you can’t go home now she says I know not now after.

The sequence ends with the longest poem in the book – still barely the length of a page – which recounts the mother’s return home in her coffin. Even here the young boy blurs the arrival of the “wood panelled box” with the arrival of the “sharp-cornered TV” before which he has so often squatted to play his Nintendo games. Penguin’s blurb talks of the poem ultimately suggesting “the necessity of the unreal” but actually we see the child fighting his way free of it. Halfway through this final poem, the revelation comes in a fluid, unpunctuated instant: “I felt my head turn into stone no it wasn’t the old TV”. It’s in this poem that Sexton alludes to the title of his book. Hedged around with the necessary qualifications imposed by the passage of years, by the unreliability of human memory, the cloaking device of powerful emotion, he recalls a childhood safe and secure in the light of his mother’s presence, the flashlight of her camera behind him, before him the vibrant, simple colours of Nintendo:

[. . .] her voice moves around the edge of the world and now I think I

remember what I mean to say which is only to say that once

when all the world and love was young I saw it beautiful glowing

once in the corner of the room once I was sitting in its light.

Poem as MRI Scan: Lieke Marsman’s ‘The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes’

downloadLieke Marsman’s The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press, 2019) is an unlikely little gem of a book about cancer, language, poetry, Dutch politics, philosophy, the environment, the art of translation and friendship – all bound together by a burning desire (in both original author and her translator, Sophie Collins) to advocate the virtues of empathy. The PBS have chosen it as their Summer 2019 Recommended Translation.

It’s Audre Lord who is the presiding spirit here, the woman with whom Marsman is in most frequent conversation. Lord’s The Cancer Journals (1985) recorded her response to the disease: a sharpened realisation – an underlining – of life’s transience and, consequently, a more acute sense of “act[ing] out of it”. She also refused to allow her response to the disease to “fossilise into yet another silence, nor to rob me of whatever strength can lie at the core of this experience”. Marsman (and her translator Sophie Collins) takes up this challenging baton to produce a busy, intelligent, funny, chatty and touching sequence of poems, an autobiographical essay and 10 concluding letters from Collins, the whole text responding to Marsman’s own diagnosis of chondrosarcoma at the age of 27.

download (1)The sort of silence Lord fears is evoked in the monitory opening poem. Its unusual, impersonal narration is acutely aware of the lure of sinking away into the “morphinesweet unreality of the everyday”, of the allure of self-imposed isolation (“unplugg[ing] your router”) in the face of the diagnosis of disease. What the voice advises is the recognition that freedom consists not in denial, in being free of pain or need, but in being able to recognise our needs and satisfy them: “to be able to get up and go outside”. It’s this continuing self-awareness and the drive to try to achieve it that Marsman hopes for and (happily) comes to embody. But it was never going to be easy and towards the end of the poem sequence, these needs are honed to the bone:

 

There is nothing I need to see

Except, again and again,

A new day with you

 

Marsman’s poems are usually very free in form, sparsely punctuated and (unlike the opening poem) give the impression of an intimate address by a sensitive, self-aware, curious and well-educated woman. This makes the moments of frank disclosure even more powerful: “I am just so scared of disappearing [. . .] I desperately need to hear / from other sufferers”. The vitality in the poems belies the exhaustion of the ill person who lacks the energy even to sort her recycling, who watches “Eurosport replays / of alpine skiing” all afternoon and for whom tying her own shoelaces becomes “the stuff of poetry!” Such rapid shifts of tone are important in conveying the resilience of the patient – more than that they suggest the true nature of the individual who is (this is Marsman’s point) more than a mere patient.

It’s this restless interest in the world that accumulates slowly to portray the individual and – against all the odds – makes this book such a pleasurable read. The poems are only partly about cancer or rather cancer is only part of what the poems are interested in. We hear fragments of conversations (‘Identity Politics Are a Fad, You Say’), then meditations on irrationality and evolution and luck. ‘Treats’ ends with thoughts about Wittgenstein’s ideas concerning language games (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”) but ends with Marsman’s characteristic blend of intelligence, self-awareness, humour and pathos:

 

Whereof one cannot speak,

Thereof one forms silent gestures

Or bursts into tears.

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Lieke Marsman

Elsewhere, the individual’s interest is swept up into gender politics, multiculturalism, reality TV shows, upscale housing developments and the political hypocrisy of the Dutch state. In the autobiographical essay that follows the poems, Marsman explains: “I had to write about politics in order not to be totally subsumed by the cancer”. This also meant she was continuing to preoccupy herself with things that interested her before the diagnosis. It also had the effect of taking her out of herself (cancer, she says, “hurls you into yourself”). Such an interest in the multiplicity and variousness of the Other proves a beneficial way out of “a very lonely experience”.

This is the point about empathy made more systematically in the prose section which is pointedly titled ‘How Are You Feeling?’ In the final lines, Marsman puts it plainly: “What I do know is that the suffering of others is not something to be judged, ever, and that the right question to ask someone who is going through something difficult [. . .] is not ‘What’s in this for me?’ but ‘How are you feeling?’” This might seem to have the air of obviousness about it, but the preceding pages have documented depressing numbers of counter examples. The initial prose sections provide a pretty straight account of a young successful woman who sees the only likely danger for her as stress and “burn-out”. It makes her – and many of the medical practitioners she initially sees about a painful shoulder – fail to see there is a serious problem. On re-reading, I began to see this also as a failure of empathy, a failure to listen in to one’s own body. And there are certainly signs that Marsman (and Collins in her later letters) see the medical profession’s slow up-take as partly due to a lack of true empathy: “not only your age but your gender had an impact on the way you were perceived and treated”.

9780141187129Marsman tells us she read Audre Lord and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor after her operation and discharge from hospital. It’s Sontag who draws attention to the role of language in the way patients themselves and other people respond to cancer. Marsman asks herself: “Am I experiencing this cancer as an Actual Hell [. . .] or because that is the common perception of cancer?” The implied failure to achieve truly empathetic perception of the role and nature of the disease is echoed horribly in the empathetic failures and hypocrisies of Dutch politicians (UK readers will find this stuff all too familiar in our own politics). Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, blithely allocates billions of euros to multinationals like Shell and Unilever (on no valid basis) while overseeing cuts in health services. Marsman reads this as a failure to empathise with the ill. Another politician, Klaas Dijkhoff, reduces benefits on the basis that people encountering “bad luck” need to get themselves back on their own two feet. Bad luck here includes illness, disability, being born into poverty or abusive families, being compelled to flee your own country. Marsman’s own encounter with such ‘bad luck’ makes her rage all the more incandescent.

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Sophie Collins

Marsman’s texts are about 35 pages long in this Pavilion Poetry edition. The remainder of the book consists of Sophie Collins’ letters. This might look like padding but the letters not only raise interesting points (particularly about the practice of translation) but are at one with Marsman’s pleas for a social fabric that enables “mutual, consensual and willing exchange[s]” between its citizens and its power structures. The epistolary form has this sort of open, empathetic exchange at its heart. In fact, the phrase I’ve just quoted is from Collins’ discussion of translation. She argues against the idea of ‘fidelity’ in translation because of the implied power relationship in such a word: “‘fidelity’; implies the presence of a primary source of power”. Traditionally, this would be located in the source text or source author; a power to which the (secondary) translator must defer. Collins wants to propose a more equal partnership, one she wants to call ‘intimacy’: “a mutual, consensual and willing exchange between two or more subjects without referencing (an) authority at all”.

Translation as an act of intimacy seems right to me, though it might appear easier to achieve this with a living source author than a dead one. But Collins really means “developing a sincere engagement with the source text, author and culture”, a ‘getting close’, so – quoting Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – the translator actually “speak[s] from inside”. This is a timely re-statement of a view of translation that, in these days where versioning and textual appropriation is so common, can be lost sight of. Collins goes even further here than the great Michael Hamburger, who was in the habit of saying the translator puts herself at the service of the source text. Collins sees the practical reality, that any translator herself is always going to be “fixed in a particular moment [. . .] will never, ever be a neutral entity” so however much we serve our source, the translator must always be bringing something of herself too: translation is an intimate engagement, a series of negotiations, an on-going drama of the most complex empathies.

Collins points out that this view of translation is one particularly fitting for the kind of work presented in this book. Marsman’s voice has the marvellous accessibility and liveliness of a conversation: “there is a deep intimacy in the way you seek to connect with your audience [. . .] the amount of credit you give your readers”. Her writing is both “accessible and smart”, says Collins, and this is just right. I might also add ‘uplifting’ – not only because Marsman’s personal prognosis looks good but because between them these two authors have produced a remarkable hybrid sort of book, grown from the astonishingly rich soil of empathetic response to others, expressive of a range of human intimacies as well as a variety of angers at the way individuals – and society – too easily succumb to blinkered self-interest and self-immuration.