Saturday, 7 March 2015

Thoughts on ‘Oils,’ by Stephen Sexton

I don’t want this to be a classroom thing. It is difficult to write about poetry sometimes without it turning out that way. Cracking open the highlighters – road-safety yellow, nu-raver pink – and finding key words in each line, mulling over their meaning. Yet, after you’ve maybe learnt how to appreciate poetry, this is often how you’re taught to appreciate it. To break it down, dissect and deconstruct it – climb inside the clockwork and analyse just exactly how each phrase, each pairing, each couplet – rhyming or not – beguiles the time.

Which is fair enough, and certainly has its uses.

But, as Stephen Sexton hints at in ‘An English Teacher Leaves the Room,’ the focus on isolated incidents can also be reductive, can lead either to lost or oversimplified meanings. Can lead, indeed, to a search for a clear or direct conclusion where perhaps there simply isn’t one.

Through the flux, then, as H. Miller once mentioned, is how I’ll come at this instead. The constant ambiguity of a life lived in pursuit.

At its base, this collection is concerned with what a lot of poetry (indeed, a lot of art) seems to be concerned with – mourning and longing, the missed chances of the past and the possibilities of the future. And yet it is about this with a surety, a tactility, which anchors these feelings, for the most part, in the reader’s present, even as they spill out over the sides.

Indeed, the reason I don’t want to resort to academic tactics – and am taking a rather wanky route around it, in fact – is because of the remarkable wholeness and heft of these poems. Is because, despite certain inferences passing over my head, I still felt the presence of what was inferred, the evocative ability of the poet’s craft at work.

I don’t intend for this to sound pretentious – though, again, it can be difficult to discuss poetry, especially at any kind of length, without falling into that trap – and I definitely don’t want to put off prospective readers by giving the impression that this collection is pretentious; though it is full of pretence, allusion and ekphrasis, it doesn’t beat you round the head with it, or exclude, or talk down to you, and nor does it show off for the sake of showing off.

Rather, what I want to convey is this – that Oils is a tremendously academic, intellectual, crafted work, but I don’t believe it requires you to be an intellectual, academic craftsman to take it apart and put it back together. It is not, in other words, poetry that speaks only to other capital P Poets. It exists in uncertainty, in unanswered questions, in the commonplace passivity of life, as much as it exists in communion with old myths and old masters.

There are, of course, many lines that may give you pause, have you reaching for references, but it is a testament to Sexton that the context of each poem in its fullness makes you really want to know, to try and fill the gap, though the poems themselves sometimes choke with a sense of the impossibility of ever quite doing so. He makes you complicit in his longing, in his own, often frustrated, search for meaning, as these poems may become, over time, complicit in yours.

And, of course, there are many lines worth breaking out the highlighters – Ghostbusters green and Breaking Bad blue – for. Such as this, from ‘John’s HiFi’:

The bass thumps like a sperm whale’s heart.

But this needn’t be a classroom thing. I don’t want it to be, is the point, and I don’t want you to think it has to be, to think any good poetry has to be; even poetry so clearly artful as that found in Oils.

I read the first half of this collection instead in Köln-Bonn airport, overlooking the runway. That felt right. These poems root you in the business of reading them, whilst they promise and/or threaten at all times to transport you somewhere else. They are written on the cusp and in the midst and in the aftermath. Moment to moment, just as we live. 

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