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But there’s satire too: in ‘Beggars’ Meal – “Indian Buck”’ the farming of ‘foie gras’ geese is compared ironically to the fate of the starving Irish during the Famine; “… force-feeding never entered Whig thinking”, but it left grotesque malnutrition:
… starvation limbs,
the jaundice-yellow of relapsing fever,
livers swelling to collapsing.
There’s a clutch of personalized tributes to music and composers, one being for Elkin’s mother at a mini-grand piano, another for “Auntie Reenie” singing Tosca with a “honey-spun thread treading the scales”. Long-time Envoi reviewer Eddie Wainwright left his editor a copy of Mozart’s hand-written catalogue. Elkin’s ingenious response concludes by describing the doubt that drives a lot of powerful writing. Here, one artist’s legacy is passed on by another to a third:
Eddie’s Bequest – better by far than mine:
these words. But suspect Eddie might not like
such notes; want silences to chart his wake.
Placed within this section is a playful piece about an abrasive chiropracticer who “swears at everything”. Yet her merciless prescribed routines allow patients to listen to CDs “just long enough” to:
… resolve the problem of bringing things
to resolution in Mozart’s piano concertos.
The genius of Envoi, past and present, beats heartily though this book, not least in its contents’ stylistic range. In ‘Dreaming of Flying’, Elkin’s insight and experience deftly wrong-foots the reader, with the fuguing lyricism of a refrain that bookends each verse:
… in her bedroom a dangling, hanging reminder
she’s always wanted to fly.
She’s always wanted to fly
not like angels in some da Vinci painting.
But the poem unpicks this form fittingly and naturally, as the persona’s wish takes literal and figurative flight from one reality – and another form – to different places:
she’s always wanted to fly
‘Obsession Confession’ surprises the reader with a very different voice. Its single sentence recreates a profound loneliness through a streaming consciousness that suggests frustrated passion. The actual reason is something touching and devastating.
In the editorial to Envoi 135, Elkin’s advice to aspiring poets is ‘“Read, read, read!”’ What follows reflects what has been Envoi’s mission and mantra:
Unless you open yourself to the influences of other poets then your own
poetry might remain stilted and its potential undeveloped.
That quotation, and Sheer Poetry’s vertigo-inducing cover, might imply that Elkin expects the writing of verse to be a struggle. But it’s not that simple: the title poem’s actually called ‘Sheer Poetry: Considering the Egyptian Position’. This is a virtuoso study of intimacy and mortality through the experience of clinging to a rock face. The piece revels in intrigue and surprise, both qualities that Envoi editors have sought out so successfully over the decades:
What if you should fall? Sheer poetry. Shakespeare
knew all about that: arrival as death.
In her fourth Envoi editorial, Jan Fortune describes the poems that she seeks for the journal:
…what really matters is that they are distinctive; they chip away at me so that
I have to return to them.
Elkin has a particular knack of achieving this, as shown by his portrayals of family. Who is the subject, in the unpunctuated intensity of ‘the brother he never really knew’? We can’t be sure, as the third person narration assails us with the same brother’s wrongdoings and failures. The peculiar exasperation that only siblings can feel for each other is underlined by a deliberate shift into the first person: the brother “bragged his big-headed time/ bad-ladding it around our town”.
That perspective returns when the surviving brother learns of the prodigal’s demise via a revelatory cruelty:
… found whammed out of life
just fifty-seven heart bust apart and I only know because Sam contacted
that effing git of a brother he never really knew.
Sheer Poetry shares many such personal histories. In Envoi 176, R.V. Bailey describes how, for Elkin the editor it was:
a matter of importance that voices were heard, that words were loved and used
with precision and respect.
This summarizes precisely the humane portrayal of Elkin’s many poetic characters. Whether remembered or imagined, they are alive in his words. Near the end of this book, a pair of poems characterise grandparents: a grandmother and her world view via the prints on her wall; a nonagenarian grandfather through skill at draughts.
Listen to the wonderful way in which diction, idiom and imagery are blended naturally in:
his triumphant run, jack-jumping with a clacking
accuracy that removes two, three, four black kings..
He laughs his little laugh. Like life! It’s just a game.
Best in both worlds, you know, not being huffed!
Repeatedly these poems are constructed around the unexpected, or the provocatively ambiguous. There’s the last piece, ‘Shoplifting’ where, with characteristic wit, the analogy of writing-as-theft is only suggested in a wry footnote. There are the fresh and intricate descriptions of ‘Mapping the Past’, an engrossing recollection of beach holidays, and their attendant parental spats. We are there, with the writer and a disconcerting sense of loss. Simultaneously, we’re left with enough room to envisage and wonder:
Remember, she said, We’ll have time enough. But,
once lost, is lost. And never, the right time to recover.
Sheer Poetry includes the very best of Elkin’s writing, being expansive, warm, humorous and wise. Adjudicating (and having just relinquished Envoi), Roger said that good poetry should include:
sensitive use of language in the capturing of experience; the use of strong
imagery; clear sensory articulation; a subtle handling of rhythm (not metre); a
sense of the inevitability in the way that the poem’s argument develops and is
resolved in the final lines; and for me, above all else an awareness of the inter
relationship between content and form.
Look no further than Sheer Poetry to see these exacting standards exemplified.
Will Daunt (First published in the final issue of Envoi literary Journal October 2020)
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