In summary: A solid debut which resists conventional narrative/descriptive techniques in favour of wildly unusual arrangements of words and images.
Jon Stone: It’s nothing new for a poet to make language itself the theme of their work, but Ruth Larbey does so with particular gusto, repeatedly using metaphor to turn language into an object that can be examined and documented within the traditional confines of the lyric poem. Most obviously, in the portmanteau of the title poem English is a spore that spreads from tongue to tongue, employing us as vessels to multiply itself – a neat inversion of the notion that it’s we who ‘use’ language:
If poetry is somewhere between music and meaninglessness, wrestled into a state where we can recognise it as communicating something, then Larbey is intent on showing the struggle itself.
“we knew none of the secrets
coming out of our mouths
and still don’t
we stole those words
that congealed with meaning ...”
It’s a satisfying articulation of the trouble with communication: words take on a life of their own. Similarly, in ‘Small Words’, their impact is described in terms of “a Flame that catches fast ... a touch of arson”, while ‘Translation’ uses a series of actions to give weight and body to the interaction between the poet and their environment:
“I will bite off my poison tooth and
grow soft hairs to coat my tongue
and spew out a bile the colour of slang ...
This black city blocks breath,
dark doubles of his spires trussing the ground.”
These extracts show Larbey at her most straightforward. Much of the pamphlet is a great deal more difficult than this, and at times it’s as if the poet is in a state of conflict with her own art, unsurprising given her recognition, in ‘Why I Am Not a Singer of the City’ that:
“The problem is names. This war is language,
or maybe, is sound ...”
Not to mention the identification, in ‘Bedsit’ of a list (written by the narrator) as “meaningless barbarian gabble” that “wriggles jaggedly down to an/impression of frustration”. If poetry, then, is somewhere between music and meaninglessness, wrestled into a state where we can recognise it as communicating something, then Larbey is intent on showing the struggle itself, even when alighting on subjects as diverse as orchids, break-ups, housesharing and the Northern Line. It makes for a powerful overhanging metaphor regarding our very real lack of control, but your mileage may vary on whether you enjoy such whimsical concoctions as:
“and a black hallucination
of beetles typing on skin
overtook wobbling thoughts
threaded with (intermittent) veins”
My remarks on the presentation: parcel paper for endpapers is the name of the game in Nine Arches’ latest pamphlets, and it works particularly well here, in combination with the dark grape-cum-aubergine textured cover. Quite simply, the humble stapled pamphlet cannot be made with higher grade materials than this, which means the next step, in my estimation, is to be more ambitious with cover designs. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with the long, treble-clef-like ‘f’ of the title. But perhaps it’s time for a little lavishness.
I have to say, David Morley’s invocation of that old lie, ‘no word is wasted’, is tiresome. Every word in poetry is wasted; it’s simply a question of how thoroughly wasted.