Issue Four

Summer 2012


Janette Ayachi Pauses at Zebra Crossings, 36pp, £3
original plus, 17 High Street, Maryport, Cumbria, CA15 6BQ

Whilst the appearance of this pamphlet is not as slick as those of some other presses around (margins are uneven, printing has slewed the type on one page) these small oddities nevertheless give it a certain authenticity. In any case, whilst the presentation is slightly distracting in some cases, it doesn’t detract from the poems themselves. However, they might perhaps benefit from a slightly stronger editorial control. Whilst one can never be sure what is intended and what is accidental, there appear to be missing and spurious question marks, missing apostrophes and perhaps a missing word.

The poems themselves centre on the life of cities. London, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Rome, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, New York are all featured. Some of the accounts seem strongly biographical, others more imagined. Somewhat surprisingly the cities are not always distinct, despite the level of detail Ayachi aims to squeeze in. In fact, the same details appear in her accounts of different cities. For example, she notes the ‘Bauhaus architecture’ of both Edinburgh (‘Pauses at Zebra Crossings’) and Amsterdam (‘Amsterdam’s Spine’) and identifies two different entrances as opportunities to enter ‘another story’ (aircraft lead to ‘another city...another story’ in ‘Airports’; windows in ‘The Madwoman and her Lover in the Attic’).

It’s perhaps not cities but the stories they contain that intrigue this poet most, especially those of human relationships: ‘Barcelona will always be about us’ (‘Our Barcelona Ending’). At their best, the poems suggestively evoke a place, put consciousness in it, and let the reader interpolate a story:

All the brickwork is unsteadying, my inky
fingertips grip the edge as the wind wraps
around contours to tap the pile of scented love
letters on the table
                     (‘Durer in Nuremburg’)

Cityscapes are filled with images that cross the boundaries of place and awareness, so the account of one becomes an image of the other – cities as states of mind. This sometimes works very well, place and the experience of it being inseparable. But sometimes the accumulation of detail, aiming for accurate observation or emotional intensity, seems overdone and unsatisfying. A poem may be vivid and expressive at one point, then seem to be striving for effect. For example, I feel the alliteration here is simply too much:

An army of hostesses hosting high hair
high fashion and high eyebrows

This may be done for comic effect, but it doesn’t really work for me. Compare this with the much stronger sonic effects in:

The lipsticked Tynemouth creases a smile,
leather gums undertow, deadlocked under docks
where a slippery mass of bearded stalactites
blind the depths and deafen the shallows.
                             (‘To Drown in the Tyne’)

I’m not entirely convinced by the facial imagery for the river here, but the phonic devices are powerful.

Similarly one image may be strikingly imaginative and another simply puzzling. For example, the phrase ‘I felt like an amateur sniper accomplice’ in ‘Los(t) Angeles’ could mean the accomplice of an amateur sniper or the amateur accomplice of a sniper (or various other possibilities). Whereas ambiguity in poetry is often an enhancement, the extra detail here adds ambiguity which merely perplexes.

In fact, there are several occasions in this volume where I think the poems might benefit from slightly tighter editorial control. There are the relatively minor punctuation issues mentioned above, but also some lines where the grammar seems to me simply wrong. Of course, the syntax of poetry may vary radically from normal language, but the examples I’m thinking of simply seem wrong in the context of the poem. Here’s one: ‘Uranium light belts / behind nebula and bounces off my body’. Is ‘belts’ a verb, equivalent to ‘bounces’ or is ‘Uranium light belts’ a noun phrase? If the former, shouldn’t ‘nebula’ be plural, or is there an article missing? Or in ‘To Drown in the Tyne’:

I am hung-over on the Millennium bridge,
its cinematically haunting like a mist
over a reservation

Isn’t ‘cinematically’ the noun subject of ‘haunting’, so intended as ‘cinematicality’? Or if it is intended as an adjectively modifier of ‘haunting’ shouldn’t it be ‘cinematical’? Such difficulties, though minor, can complicate the interpretation of poems which are baroque or ripe with detail, sometimes spoiling the imaginative richness of the work.

So, whilst the work has many strengths it could probably be more controlled in its intent. Observationally, emotionally, imaginatively and in its use of language it has much to offer. But it sometimes goes too far, sometimes chooses an exaggerated expression where simpler language might be more effective and the poet might find a less relaxed editorial hand more helpful. At the same time, one wouldn’t want to suppress Ayachi’s questing imagination nor limit her reach – there are some vibrant, unusual images here and a sense of the grit and grease of real cities that’s well worth the exploration.