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Review of Lucky Day
Stephen Knight, Times Literary Supplement, 22nd April 2005Next review of 'Lucky Day'... To the 'Lucky Day' page...
In a recent review of books by John Kinsella, Richard Price admires the Australian poet's "pleasurably oblique" descriptions of landscapes, and the "power not just of understatement but of situations which are ambiguous and unresolved". He could be defining his own work. A gathering of more than a hundred poems, many of which have appeared in small press publications over the past decade, Lucky Day is frequently baffling, at times unexpectedly touching.
When language fractures under the pressure Price exerts on it, communication falters. He dismantles familiar phrases with rogue punctuation - "As the saying says, all / said and done, and done, well, not well, but finished, / over, good as, over and done to" - and leaves a distance between images, forcing the reader to leap from one to the other as if they were precarious stepping stones:
the broad bellies of the working barges, working barges (retired) - long, broad, barges her pale belly, sun-shy, faintly striped - "children do stretch you" Price has fun yoking barges to a stretch-marked woman, but does not leave it there. The dashes appear to be, but are not, parenthetical. Why is there a comma after the second "broad"? The third "barges" might be a verb, but, if so, what "barges / / her pale belly"? One of several untitled pieces, the poem continues to provoke questions for another four couplets. Speculation, it seems, is the point of Richard Price's poetry rather than anything as final as an answer.
So-called experimental writing can often seem more enjoyable to produce than to read. Fortunately, Price's attenuated poems are never smitten by their own voices, though brevity, one of his poetry's striking features, also compounds interpretive difficulties; so few words, so much white space in which to flounder. Sparse as many of these poems are, they are nevertheless capable of music. One of the book's less opaque pieces, "Motorcruisers - ", contemplates a crowded lock:
The tenders on tenterhooks expect
the dregs (fluffed up), the float-trot
to worry the weed-wisp water,
to swill the willow-shadowed shallows,
to spread that turbo spit.
The vessels of "Motorcruisers - " are "lotion-going powerboats", one of many instances of Price's playfulness; he also gives us "margin of horror" and a cow, itself an image of the boats, as a "mooer-and-shaker". There is, too, a humour in Price's imagery; oasthouses are reminiscent of nuns, and he tampers with scale by juxtaposing a wind farm with the plucking of a daisy's petals. Occasionally, the result is whimsy. The prose of "A Spelthorne Bird List" transfigures the heron: "A greying Senior Lecturer in Fish Studies (Thames Valley), he stands in frozen hop concentration, regarding a lectern only he can see. Still, he gets results. He's hoping for a chair".
The ostentatious metaphor is a stock poetic device, and there is in Lucky Day a whiff of recent practitioners of the startling comparison - Norman MacCaig, Christopher Reid and Craig Raine - though Price's poetry does not succumb to the pungency of their voices. The quintessentially English landscape of rowers and swan upping is rescued from cliche, but the real achievement of Lucky Day is its treatment of romantic and parental love.
Neither lyric nor narrative but possessing a little of both, that curious hybrid the poetic sequence is Price's forte. "Marks & Sparks" focuses on a disintegrating relationship, reclaiming, in the process, language annexed by greeting-card doggerel and the three-minute pop song: "I care for you. / You . . .could care less"; "I'll always / open up to you". That most familiar of phrases, "I love you", is more than once deployed without irony. Price's techniques of fragmentation also equip him to dramatize elisions and spoken feelings; the results bear no resemblance to the adolescent outpourings this material frequently engenders.
But the finest marriage of form and content is "Hand Held". In forty-two brief poems, Price charts the early years of a daughter diagnosed with a neurological disorder, and the writing is at its most direct, tender and open. "Truth is, I / was ashamed", the speaker admits at one point, and piercingly, "People will not love you / when we are dead":
you have been
dear enough to us,
can only hope for what is yet
termed a home,
but it's some consolation
you understand nothing
of nuance, nor the future.
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