My 20-month-old son Kyle is at that interesting stage of developing a sense of humour.
This week he told me, “I want milk.”
“You want milk?” I asked, just to make sure.
Difficult Fruit, Lauren Alleyne
Peepal Tree Press, 2014
Difficult Fruit, Lauren Alleyne’s debut collection, has many virtues. Alleyne, a Trinidadian resident in the US, has a clear eye, a firm grasp of her material (emotion, place, politics) and an evident discipline in execution, which respects form, style, and antecedents. (One hesitates to say “tradition” or “canon,” for reasons I’ll get into later.)
Difficult Fruit comprises 39 poems split into three sections. The sections are not named, but they might well be titled Mind, Body, Spirit, as Alleyne focuses her attention on these broad themes as she works her way through her material.
Many of the poems in the first section are examinations of subject, place and occasion. The poem that dominates this section is Eighteen, which is the first in a number of age-snapshot poems. Other snapshots look at ages seven, 14, 15 and 30, and another shorter poem titled Eighteen.
Eighteen (the longer piece) is a microcosm of the collection. It embodies the personal centre from which Alleyne writes: she, or a strong female presence resembling her, imbues much of the work, mining personal experience, and recording, analysing, often wondering at the intractability of the world. The weakness of the work is that at times, the personal, the demands of raw experience, undermine technique.
Eighteen begins addressing a “sweet girl,” contemplating the crossroad at which she stands, “full of small rivers/your eyes’ salty runoff, the rust-bright trickle/staining your thigh.” Divided into ten parts, it follows the unfurling of the child-adult consciousness, around a specific event—a rape. (The identity of the narrator is immaterial, or should be.)
At places, the speaker in the poem is so overwhelmed by the subject, she commits the most grievous faults the teller of such a tale can commit: she surrenders to emotion and slides into cliché, abstraction, collapsed registers (dropping near or into prose), and ready-made syntax.
We read “Under those waters, you labour to birth me,” or “to go back is a verb conjugated in dreams,” or “you moved and moved, never still long enough/for your shadow to settle.” The prepackaged syntax of overwrought woman-in-throes of woman-stuff is evident in the water, labour, birth metaphor; the retreat into abstraction is most evident in the phrase “verb conjugated in dreams.”
But these faults are small compared to the deadliest turn which destroys the poem: “In a class on Violence /Against Women, the professor prophesies/this moment—it will come for anyone/who has suffered trauma. We do not believe/We are anyone until we are sobbing.”
This is highly emotive stuff, but what makes it poetry rather than an entry in a personal journal, or confessional rather than therapeutic, is a certain amount of ruthlessness, a will and capacity to orchestrate. One hesitates to suggest models—the lists in Alleyne’s acknowledgements, and her cover quotes are packed with names and eminent institutions—but the American poets Marianne Boruch and/or Frank Bidart are masters of taking the grotesque and the inane, and restructuring them into low-key, ironic gems. And these are elements (irony, self-effacement, detachment) that would lift Alleyne’s game considerably.
The poem The Hoodie Stands Witness, dedicated to Trayvon Martin (the young African-American man killed by a vigilante in Florida in 2012), is more successful in the translation of personal or public trauma into news that stays news.
Hoodie evades unnecessary abstractions, and focuses on things—“…change and candy/into my pockets/the necessary jangle of keys and cellphone/hushed in the sock of me.” And from this, and other poems, it’s evident that Alleyne is endowed with skill and concentration necessary for this work. The problem is discretion—where to tread and what to leave alone, as there are some things to which emotional beings are simply incapable of applying clinical detachment to re-shape, to transform, into art.
As she moves away from issues of the mind, which seem located in graduate seminars and tightly-knit artistic/academic circles, where these private/public expatiations are encouraged, the verse becomes stronger.
Many poems of the second section of the book are devoted to love, sex, and lovers. These poems are occasionally too entangled in their subjects, though in much lesser degrees than in Eighteen. But the charm of self-discovery, and the first intimations of the complexities of body and mind show themselves through a curious and vital intelligence, and it’s always at least interesting to read.
Occasionally you come along a rough gem like A Ghazal in Arms: “When you sleep alone, tucked like nerveless wings, your arms/pillow your dreaming head, and you’re in her arms.”
Arms is a clever, well-orchestrated poem which sustains many re-readings. The consciousness in the poem is relaxed but not indulgent. And it appears that when her consciousness is furthest away from the concerns of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, Alleyne’s poems take their best shapes, ones that make you look again.
A couple of poems resemble dramatic monologues, like Love in G Major, which is thankfully much better than the dreadful yawping called “spoken word.”
Many of the poems in the final section tend more and more away from the shackles of abstraction, politics, and the personal.
Among the best is Letters to John Rambo (as Sylvester Stallone used to be known in a time long past).
If I ever paint you, it would be clay
on canvas. I’d put a fence in the centre
right where your heart would be.
I’d sketch your face and cover it with sand.
The 10 Most Sacred Spots on Earth, like Stevens’ blackbird, manages to surprise, and the third-but-last poem, Letter to the Outside, a prose poem, is the best-executed poem in the book.
Difficult Fruit is an interesting collection. The politics of contemporary art (that is to say, the wide subjectivity in assessment) being what it is, what I’ve identified as weaknesses might not be considered weaknesses in the circles (I’ll resist using the word “womb”) in which the poems were conceived.
But even as an ever-widening subjectivity runs riot with poetry, there manage to survive a few rules poets should consider: go in fear of abstractions; a poem without irony is poorer for it; and, as a dead white fellow named Archie said: “A poem should not mean, but be.”