Sam Riviere – Faber New Poets 7
by Joshua Jones
Riviere’s poems are definitely the best I’ve read in the Faber series so far. Initially at least, they can seem rather plain.. After a few reads, however, I realised they’re not plain at all (or polite, another vaguely negative term I had mentally applied to them), but simply meticulously honed and economic in their language, delicately tied together. It’s only a seeming delicacy, though; they are in fact composed as tightly as possible, and yet do not overemphasise this tightness and compression.
Opener ‘Poems’ is a lovely poem that at first seems to be another addition to the ‘poems about poetry’ category, but quickly establishes itself as transcending that narrow and often irritating niche due to what its metaphorical deployment of the “poems” in question potentially signifies. The first line break, perfectly enjambed, turns an engaging mundanity into a striking line:
When he first met her it was as if he could see
His poems moving around below her skin
The writing is perfectly restrained, vaguely reminiscent in its clarity and tactility of American poets such as David Berman. As such many of the lines take on more symbolic possibility, compression squeezing as much out of them as possible without becoming detrimentally abstract. What on the surface is quite sweet and straightforward reveals a sinister undercurrent of possession (a notably male possession) and the imposition of self (deception) onto other: the poems “fat and defenceless,/without natural predators, begging/to be caught, mounted and nailed to the wall.” Along with the imposition of personal yearning, the metaphorical attribution of “his” desire into “her”, there is a subtle, violent urge to own these desires placed into the other, to possess them, with the implication of asserting his power over her, via that which he has rightly or wrongly attributed to her. It is through the competent tactility of the composition and its less sinister, possibly more valid interpretation, coupled with the menacing trace of undercurrent, that the poem succeeds.
There have been complaints elsewhere (in, frankly, a rather sub-standard piece of reviewing) that there are too many brief encounters in the book. The reviewer does have a point, but his dismissal is, I believe, unwarranted. Sure, some of the ‘fleeting encounter’ poems lose potency due to proximity, otherwise fine poems (‘Paris’ in particular) detracting from themselves, but they are for the most part worthy additions to the genre, and pleasurable, if not groundbreaking and innovative, to read, hinting at more sophisticated scenarios and situations to come in later work. ‘Hello, I’m visiting on behalf of Amnesty International’, for example, is brilliantly sustained, a sprawling train of thought, commas signifying further leaps in the narrator’s imaginings.
The two longer poems are perhaps the most interesting. The first, ‘Back in the Green Night’, with its retroactive narrative, starts off bold, plonking the reader into a strange and carefully depicted environment, only to lose focus as it progresses, the trademark control built up by all the pieces preceding it dissolving into overwrought writing:
...I’ll tell it all,
when in the muggy dark the roused trees ringed us
with their roaring.
The second is possibly the most likeable of the collection, aside from the opener. Or rather it would be if its influences weren’t so apparent. It reads like a less irony-fuelled, less poststructural version of a typical Luke Kennard poem from a typical Luke Kennard narrator:
I went round saying it – ‘America is an important place,
as far as style goes, that is! Now,
would you like me to channel your ancestors?’
I stopped adding the ‘Not really!’ bit
as my sense of humour was becoming more acerbic.
It’s a good poem, very witty and funny and self-aware, and if I wasn’t so familiar with Kennard’s work I’d have few criticisms. Part of me can’t help thinking it’s a prose poem cut into line breaks, but in this case that’s not really an issue as far as I’m concerned. Even more appealing is how, if it negatively calls to mind Kennard, it positively calls to mind Frederick Seidel, which can only be a good thing.
Riviere, then, has potential. His poetry is very readable and he clearly has a way with craft. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a full-length as and when that happens, and hoping for a little more interplay between the longer pieces’ more freewheeling tone and the shorter pieces precision and control. It’s not a debut that will blow your mind (but then none of the Faber pamphlets are, from what I’ve read so far), but it is one that will introduce you to a poet who looks set to develop an interesting voice, and is well worth your eyes.
 Massively looking forward to reading Annie Katchinska’s pamphlet, though. From what I’ve read of her thus far, she could be brilliant.
Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017
9 months ago