Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Holy Place, by John Dotson and Caroline Gill

Poet To Poet 5, The Seventh Quarry & Cross-Cultural Communications, 2012, £3.50 / $10
This is the fifth in a series of chapbooks published by Swansea-based The Seventh Quarry in partnership with their transatlantic counterparts – the idea is that each one pairs up a US writer with a British poet.

The first thing to say is that, although there’s a pleasing consistency of theme across the two halves, John Dotson and Caroline Gill approach their concerns in quite different ways, both in terms of their (surface) subject matter and style. At first glance, you might even be tempted to say that the pair fulfil certain cultural expectations in that respect – Dotson’s poems are more open-field, and use white space and varying line-lengths to good effect, while Gill’s are more traditional in form.

That works well to provide variety in what’s a large (52 pages) and thus thoroughly good value pamphlet, and it ensures that the afore-mentioned themes aren’t signposted or foregrounded too obviously – you’re left to discover what Dotson calls “unsuspected symmetries” for yourself, and the book’s all the more enjoyable for that.

Dotson’s strength is the ability to place the everyday, the scientific and the philosophical in close proximity, without being impenetrable or sounding pretentious, and he does this to best effect in poems such as the opener, Aurora Consurgens, and the splendid Trapezium, which attempts to “explain / my vocation as / trapeze artist” and ends with “the little boy body / of an old man / still at this / peculiar performing arts / business / more and less”.

Gill’s work is more obviously grounded in the flesh and blood of the natural world, although perhaps grounded is the wrong word to use, given how many birds and insects flit and soar their way through her work.

 The best poems here are when she combines this close observation of nature with a keen sensitivity to the history and landscape of Wales (and sometimes further afield). Preseli Blue, for example, eulogises “the stone that sings of hiraeth” in 16 well-honed lines, while Rhossili: Writing The Worm, is the highlight, metrically-surefooted and musical, and managing the always difficult balancing act of writing about writing. And she has a knack for suddenly shrinking the universal down to the utterly specific – Master Of Arts ends when “the only universe / was this great green / bush cricket”, leaving you with the feeling that the divine, rather than the devil, is in the details.

If there’s a weakness, it’s when one or other of the poets reaches too obviously for a moment of significance, but such slips are few and far between. More often they offer contrasting routes to the same destination, and it’s a journey that’s well worth making.

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