Sheenagh Pugh reviews
by John Haynes
Haynes’ first collection, Letter to Patience, was a long poem in terza rima addressed to a friend in Nigeria. The present book is again a long poem, this time in rime royal, the stanza of Troilus and Criseyde, addressed to his Nigerian-born wife.
As in his first book, the classical form is given a more contemporary feel by being handled quite freely. Rhyme is anything from full to a vague approximation of vowels, while the metre, though basically iambic, is also often irregular and, above all, uses a lot more enjambement than Chaucer would have contemplated. This is where one of the problems comes in. Rime royal seems less able to accommodate constant run-on lines than terza rima was; Haynes’ version of it may sound more contemporary, but it also often sounds awkward:
Not sure she’d woken up, he called out "Kakka"
very softly just in case, then when her
voice creaked from the dark
The first line there is perfectly sayable; the second, with its jarring run-on, stumbles horribly. This happens several times, and always in connection with rather daringly run-on lines. Where the poem flows, as it often does for long periods, the line breaks fall into the way of matching natural pauses in the syntax just as they would in Chaucer. I'm driven to the conclusion that sometimes, the reason a thing has been done the same way for centuries is not that no one has thought to see if another way is better, but because it works.
The poem also seems to flow better when he's narrating facts than when he's pondering life, the universe and everything. At these points the syntax can get downright convoluted and not only the rhythm but the sense is hard to follow. In this verse
And Lara born almost the day your mother
died, a second soul, the joy and sorrow
child across all this school map Sahara,
that third line, with its impenetrable three-noun phrase at the end, had me baffled and wondering if it were a typo; had a word been missed out? There certainly are several typos, including a couple where the word "its" has carelessly acquired an unwanted apostrophe – "that calls the tale to it's own exile" and "this Africa, it's use". He also sometimes baffles me with his use of italics: why, in this line, the italics on "are"
still dark as are the walls of that stone womb
let alone the last two letters of "sentimental" in these lines:
or try to put
my case sentimental, holding your foot
where I can't imagine what is being achieved.
But mainly where there is puzzlement it comes from this being partly a very personal poem. It does have universal relevance; it is an often fascinating meditation on what we mean by the word "you", the concept of another human to whom we stand in a relationship, but it is also addressed to a "you", the poet's wife, and contains many personal references from which we are necessarily excluded. This is quite acceptable in a poem, certainly preferable to having everything carefully explained as to an idiot, and here we come to another problem, the copious footnotes. Where these relate to Nigerian language and custom, they are sometimes useful but we could often do without them; the gist would come over even if the word did not. This account of an old woman's death is for my money, quite affecting without being translated:
Roof-thatch, brushed clay floor, clay bed, a wrapper
over her. She spoke from where she lay.
"Few days, one week, you no go see me, shah."
She drank, then smiled. She wasn't scared. She'd see
them all again, parents, sisters. "Bature,
you are welcome. How are you? Sannu!"
I answered: "Na gode". It means "Thank you".
I'd happily have done without the intrusively explanatory last sentence, and without the footnotes explaining that "few days" means "in a few days' time", "shah" "I assure you", "Bature" "European" and "Sannu" "hello". It reminds me of nothing so much as when the BBC adds subtitles to some Indian or African speaker whose English was perfectly comprehensible in the first place. Even worse, though, is when he footnotes something which, if it is to make its impact on a reader at all, must do so without being signalled, like a quotation or literary reference – eg the footnote to the line "because here is the sun where I was born", which goes "Desdemona's words – "I think the sun where he was born/Drew all such humours from him." Here, surely, one must trust the reader to make the connection. If they don't, too bad, but spelling it out can never match the frisson of noticing it in one's own reading. This is something that must be conveyed without being said outright. To some extent, I have the same reaction to the frequent references to other writers, theories, the Reith lectures etc; they make the material feel vaguely unassimilated and though the urge to credit one's sources is admirable in an academic paper, they work better in a poem when buried.
To stress again, there are long stretches where this poem does move well and convey what it means to while carrying the reader with it:
Dad, what's it like to die? And when you're dead
will you still hear me play the violin?
Will you be you? Or just the word instead
of you? No, I'll be you. I'll snuggle in
your memory like hide and seek again.
If he relaxed more and trusted the reader, it might all come over as easily as that. This is an ambitious and unusual endeavour, as his last book was; it is always something to see a poet thinking on a large scale, not forgetting the importance of lyric moments but managing to weave them into a wider narrative. It is also liberating to see poems that are not Euro-centric but recognise a wider world. It's not the concept but the execution I have some quibbles with.
Sheenagh Pugh reviews regularly for Eyewear. She is a leading British poet.