Issue Three

Spring 2012

 

Kate Ruse Corridors 32 pp, £3.00
original plus, 17 High Street, Maryport, Cumbria, CA15 6BQ

There are two interesting projects in this chapbook, both of them worth pursuing, both of them illuminating, as a pair certainly justifying the cover price, but ultimately neither of them is entirely satisfying. The pamphlet is nicely presented (despite an odd shift of font on p. 5 and some issues of apparently random alignment between text and image) and the poems are certainly capable and very sympathetic to their subjects. Even so, the book as a whole seems a little uncertain and perhaps even a touch disjointed in its purpose.

On the one hand we have two sections, each consisting of a series of poems on an interesting artist. The first, on the dancer Nijinsky, is essentially a birth to death verse biography. The second, on Kafka, chooses a narrow period of his life focusing on his conflicting feelings around love and marriage (although, interestingly enough, sex does not seem especially relevant). There could be several parallels between these two contemporaries, their madnesses, their conflicts, their anxieties over failed relationships, but such parallels do not seem to interest Ruse. Yet the poems keep rubbing against similar phrasing and images, as if the reader is perhaps supposed to note such parallels in the imagined versions of their lives. If so, they’re too obscure for me. Instead I found the repeated images, such as “powdered snow”, “down below” the surface, “corridors” of mental activity, “feathered seeds” of thoughts and words rather seemed to suggest slight failures of imagination, as if the poet found only limited perceptions of the subjects rather than enriching relationships between the two artists.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great ideas and great images here. Clearly Ruse has assimilated the lives of her subjects and understands them as closely as a biographer might. For example, the idea of Kafka’s concern with his thinness of body and self-image, compelling him to eat in order to be like Buddha and fatten his spiritual profile, is marvellously conceived. Or the use of spacing within lines to create rhythm in the Nijinsky poems mimicking both dance and madness is often particularly well done.

But I don’t think the poet quite knows what she intends with the poems, leading to some rather uncertain moments. For example, the musical drive of rhythm in ‘Loves’ is suddenly defeated by a very prosaic pair of lines:

The snow creaks        birds screech
far off voices of skiers
skim     like smooth stones over water

He walks through villages closed after winter.
At Campfer he avoids the war bulletins
posted outside the telegraph office.

(Loves)

This seems to me endemic to the volume: a conflict between the lyrical phrasing and insightful images, but descends also to shore these up with prose biographical detail. This leads to poems where the poet writes from jarring perspectives: in one line inside the poet’s head, then outside, then offering independent images that stand alone to be interpreted, then providing a commentary to explain how the reader should feel about it. The last poem in the volume is a good example of this shifting perspective:

The wind and field mice scurry through disturbed channels.
The murmurous silence that rocked him in the past
now shrieks shrill and hideous in his head......

With half a mind to leave he flexes his body
as if to test the younger man inside him.

(A State of Danger)

That wonderfully ambiguous “with half a mind to leave” would surely work much better if the poet didn’t feel compelled to give us a perspective to adopt on it (with the “as if” clause) and do we really need to be told that the “disturbed channels” are to equivalent to what is “in his head”?

It seems that Ruse herself is not secure in her approach, as the poems are bolstered in several ways, as if they might not stand effectively on their own. There are prose biographies of Nijinsky and Kafka, but almost every poem additionally has an epigraph which also provides biographical context, often repeating what’s in the prose account, and occasionally offering what are really quite trivial notes, such as the epigraph to ‘Loves’: “Nijinsky liked to take walks in the countryside around St Moritz” which precedes the quotation above, in which “He walks through villages”. Then there are also visual illustrations which, though each is nicely done, are not all particular enhancements of the poems, but merely reinforcements of a particular motif within the poem, so stand more as incidental decoration than developing what the poem offers.

Undoubtedly I now know more about Nijinsky and Kafka than I did, and Ruse has offered some plausible imaginative insights into these intriguing artists. The poems are sometimes adventurous, often insightful, contain some great moments, but ultimately I found them too often unsatisfying. Ruse is a poet who seems on her way to somewhere exciting, but I’m not sure she has arrived there yet.

NW