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Review: Faber New Poets 7

September 17, 2010

The Faber New Poets series is an interesting endeavour, compelling not least because of its minimalism. Only four poets a year benefit from its ‘programme of mentorship, bursary and pamphlet publication’ and the end product, slim volumes like this one – the seventh – from Sam Riviere, seem at first glance to hardly be worth the trouble. But there is a certain charm to these colourful wee samplers. They offer the public a taste of Britain’s emerging talents without the risk and commitment attached to a full collection. The poets in this series are ‘up-and-coming’ in every sense, and while brief, these pamphlets represent the growing readiness of major publishers to have faith in the young.

Riviere’s mini-collection has an air of defiance about it; the poems resist the temptation to speed-read that comes with shorter books and demand to be taken seriously, perhaps another little victory for the cause of the ‘new poets’. In these works any move towards the whimsical is grounded by something almost chilling: ‘Poems’ leaves figurative fish – metaphors for poetic expression – “begging / to be caught, mounted and nailed to the wall.” In ‘Observation of a Neanderthal Colony’ and ‘Back in the Green Night’, Riviere adopts the journalistic coldness of a documentary filmmaker (quite literally), exploring the human tendency towards the animalistic and tragic with arresting flippancy.  In this way, the poems of this pamphlet seem both intimate and distant, and it is this tension between feeling and trying not to feel that gives them their force.

What overpowers the reader most in Riviere’s work is its relentlessness. The longest poem in the pamphlet is ‘Myself Included’, in which the speaker embarks on an unflinching act of self-scrutiny:

[…] I filmed my face for hours,
then played it back, filming my face
while watching it. It was hard to read me
as I didn’t much react. Also, the silence
of the flat was thickening to fizzy soup,
and I thought I might start hearing voices.
Things were finally getting interesting
but it was time for my trip to America.

It was there I stopped believing
in the value of self-image and experience.
I went round saying it – ‘I have no self-image
and have destroyed all my experience.’

The reader, however is left wondering whether an ‘act’ is all this is; the repetition of “I went round saying it” appears to grow out of the speaker’s need to authenticate his statements, both to the reader and to himself. Coupled with the visions of “the dead” that recur throughout the poem (“lurching on stairwells […] accompanied always by a buzz of flies”), the intense attention to the self seems more like a masked attempt to escape it. This is a truth seen only in moments of madness, which the speaker is unable to acknowledge externally.

It is unclear whether it is despite or because of the duality in his poems that Riviere achieves his hypnotic urgency. For urgency it is – we can see it in poems like ‘The Kiss’ or ‘The Aquarium’, where an extreme use of enjambment and sparse punctuation force the reader to carry on reading at a pace dictated by the text.

These qualities of Riviere’s poetry (defiance, relentlessness and urgency) are what gives this pamphlet its hook. The reader will struggle to put it down not because it begs to be read, but because it refuses not to be.

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