Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Lumsden and Tabios

True Crime by Julie Lumsden (Shoestring Press), £5.00, ISBN: 978 1 907356 38 4

Silk Egg by Eileen Tabios (Shearsman Books), £9.95 / $17 ISBN 9781848611436

These two books are, on the surface, dissimilar; Tabios writing out of a post-modern, post-colonial milieu, Lumsden writing in what seems a more conservative mode. But the apparent differences are deceptive. Both books are ironic, economic with language, and concerned to present a subversive account of an accepted discourse.

Julie Lumsden is a writer I've admired for a long time, and was in fact, one of the first writers to be published by Leafe. This short pamphlet is exemplary in its concision and economy, delivering a series of monologues and brief, acerbic observations. Much mainstream poetry, combines monologue and lyric, but achieves neither mode successfully. Lumsden's monologues are dramatic in the way that Browning's were; Lumsden is a playwright for stage and theatre, and it shows. The opening sequence of ten poems tells the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. and it does so from the viewpoint of the characters involved - The Best Friend, the Witness, the Hangman etc. The Hangman, speaking of the woman he's hanged before Ruth Ellis:

No one wept through the night for
Mrs Christofi, or broke through a police cordon...

...Let's put it this way, she
wasn't the sort of woman

men apologise to with roses.
She was older, not much of a looker.

Typically, this implies so much more than it says. The rest of the pamphlet has a similar cutting edge:

I'll stop when I'm ready, stop
driving to poetry events in suburban libraries
wondering if Frank is dead,
and if there's a poem in it.

What this pamphlet does is create a convincing world, peopled by believable characters, then draws the reader into it. A skillful thing to do.

Eileen Tabios is a renowned Filipino-American poet, publisher, editor and intellectual, and this is her first, long-overdue, UK publication, from the ever-reliable Shearsman Books. If all novels were like the ones in this book, I'd read a lot more of them.There are seven 'novels' here, each chapter of which consists of a short prose-poem, often just a couple of sentences, and each novel is a distiliation of the essential elements which could make up a real novel. I was won over on encountering these lines:

He moved into her gift, woke each morning to soft warm
lucidity, and agreed as regards the irrelevance of ribbons.

The understated sensuouness of that last line is superb. Each novel is an unfinished narrative, a set of fragments, for which the reader can supply completion, or, alternatively, they could just enjoy the phrasing, imagery and the sense of mystery each piece invokes. At one level, this book is a satire on contemporary novels, with each of the ten novels being a precis of a certain type. Thus, "Opium-Centred Lace", is - parody is too strong, and not the right word - is the ghost or shadow of a novel that might be a travelogue with some sort of love interest. But the language has a light touch and is too lyrical to be a straightforward satire:

The cafe was owned by the grandaughter of Romanian

Living a good life, someone once whispered in a
childhood schoolyard, is one conclusion to a grave secret.

In "Silk Egg" there is the most-modern notion of appropriating the contemporary realist novel, and the element of parody; but what ultimately appeals about this book is the delicate lyricism.

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