NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Orange Roses by Lucy Ives
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, Idaho, 2013)
This is my first acquaintance with the work of Lucy Ives. She was born in New York City in 1980, received an AB, magna cum laude, from Harvard College, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently completing a PhD in comparative literature at New York University. Her first collection, the book-length poem, Anamnesis (Slope Editions, 2009) won the Slope Editions Book Prize. Orange Roses is her second collection. She is a deputy editor with the arts magazine and publisher, Triple Canopy.
The poems in Orange Roses were written over a ten-year period and trace a poet’s development in the art of writing poetry. Stylistically it is a mix of prose poems, notebook entries, philosophical essays, observations, citations, fragments and sequences.
Ives is a minimalist. Her poems are sparse. The titles give very little, if anything, away. One poem is simply titled The Poem, another is titled Picture but the “picture” itself has no title. There is a series of five poems (or maybe it is one poem in five parts) called In Sonnets. All this gives away is the fact that each of the five parts is composed of 14 lines. All other “rules” relating to the traditional way of writing a sonnet are blown out of the water. Ives defies convention. She turns it upon its head. Pieces titled Early Novel and Circular Novel are written as poetry and the piece called Early Poem is written in prose. Footnotes are neither quoted sources nor amplifications on the standard text but appear to be additions that look as if they should have been included in the text in the first place. At another point, the words of a whole stanza have been crossed out. For Ives, poetry has long since ceased to be about following a set of rules. It has almost ceased to exist altogether. The content takes the form of condensed, disjunctive fragments in which sense is pared to the bone. Language is stripped of any form of narrative. It is a kind of anti-poetry.
At two points in the book, Ives herself states:
I still don’t have the answer to the question, “what constitutes a poem now?”
I have never known how to write poetry. It is not a question of relating language to a person one is but rather of relating it to the exact person one is not.
This is what this book is about. It is, by its own admission, exploratory. It is concerned with how a poem comes about and the discovery of what a poem actually is.
Consider the sequence Beastgardens. The title itself represents the conjunction of two words which fail to make sense. It provokes the question, is this a zoo, the antithesis of a Garden of Eden, or a nod to Alejandro Durán’s short film Beastgarden set in Berlin? The poem is in seven parts. Is the number seven significant? Typically, in the first poem, First Garden, Ives refuses to give anything away. The only word in this poem is beastgarden. From there on, every poem in the sequence ends with the word beastgarden. This begs the question whether each of the poems is aiming for a definition or a description. All we glean is that there are seven distinct gardens and that in some or all of them there is a space that is full of bees, human beings, red boats, a castle, a stretch of water and a ballroom. Certain things are inferred: there is music, because there is dancing; there are drinks available because there is drinking. Money changes hands. There is not much else to go on. Tantalisingly, the reader is left to fill in the blanks. Most of the time, these are very large blanks and we make of it what we will. For Ives, The fallacy of the poem is beautiful because it is already the embodiment of a reader.
In Catalogue Ives lists all the reasons why we crave for objects in our consumer-driven society:
Permanence, residence, desire, history, possession, envy and admiration.
The catalogue in question could be a catalogue of images, a catalogue of facts or equally a catalogue of our own illusions, of good and of evil: [the] angel enamoured of the apple. The pre-occupation with clothing and appearance is particularly strong in the poem: black underwear, a large silk scarf, a Mercedes medallion, a cowboy shirt, a long dark coat…Catalogue is an essay on how illusion and materialism leads to conformity by making us hanker after the same thing which, in the final analysis, is all of our own making. It culminates in the repetition of the last section:
Our amazing bed is our future. Do nothing but lie down on it.
Illusion is a concept which is central to this book. In the opening poem, Ives states that:
…the vision of the artist arises from illusion, in the form of an illusion, with illusion as its base.
The cross-fertilisation of themes, ideas and images that recur throughout the book is one of its strong points. It brings a sense of order to the text. For example, the issue of identity which is found on page 2: Keats has no “Identity”; page 48: “…there are no, I guess, individual people…” and page 59: “I meet with Julia, who remembers me as “Canadian” or “Kim Deal.”
Lucy Ives’s prose poem, Early Poem, is set in 100 sentences, or so she would have us believe. We know this because she counts them out, one by one, in an attempt to impose some sort of chronological order upon creative thought, random reflection and the writing process. She also uses this device as a reminder of the passage of time: In the twenty-ninth sentence, I think, next year this will be the number of my age. There may not, however, be 100 sentences here. Ives has some tricks up her sleeve because all is not as it seems. What happened, for example, to sentence 18, sentence 52 or sentence 62, all of which are missing from the sequence? There is intrigue in the unnamed hundredth sentence which does not end in a full-stop, signifying that it may or may not be complete, depending upon interpretation. The monotony of mentioning all (or most) of the sentence numbers in the text is off-set by the words that follow to make up each sentence. These range from the witty to the philosophical, the mundane to the ingenious. It has the effect of keeping the reader moving forward to discover what will happen next.
For me, the ingenuity of Early Poem and the fascinating prose sequence, Orange Roses, work best of all in this collection. There is a structure here that holds the prose together. Both show how Ives can handle disparate material in a cohesive whole. She is at times philosophical, but she also can write with humour and, above all, breathtaking honesty. She achieves this in plain, unpretentious language while steering clear of a slavish reliance upon narrative detail. These are quiet poems that, unusually, call for the reader to make them arrive at a settled state that is not yet apparent upon the page. If this is hard to do, we must be patient:
During a time of waiting, a lot of things won’t be apparent.
I love the wisdom that is contained in that sentence. It is one of many gems that can be found in this book.
The book ends with an essay titled On Imitation. In many ways it helps to explain what has gone before. According to a note in the text, in the summer of 2012, the editors of Triple Canopy embarked on an inquiry into the purpose of writing. They decided that, rather than compose in straightforward critical prose, each would invent a story about him or herself (a story narrated by someone called “I”) that would in some way express his or her concerns, doubts, euphoria, and / or opinion concerning the act of writing. They agreed that it would be OK to lie, and that no-one should make everyone’s life more difficult by writing more than 2000 words. The contribution from Ives offers the reader a fascinating insight into her work as she sets out to discover the difference between writing and photography as a mode of expression and the proper use and form of written language.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and an e-book, Grease-banding The Apple Trees, which is available as an international PDF download from Raffaelli Editore, Italy, 2015. His website is at www.poetrypf.co.uk/neilleadbeaterpage.shtml.