Reviews
 

‘It probably has to do with diversity ’

for silver see blue by Glenn Storhaug   64pp  £7.95

 

This is a lovely book as I’d expect from a joint publication by West House Books and Five Seasons Press. It opens properly; it’s good in the hand, good on the eye (meticulous attention to detail); great cover picture and even the author’s picture is a painting not a photo.

It’s the book everyone would love to have written, freewheeling perfectly on to the page. The book is one poem, with some titled sections, opening and closing with an image of cymbals. ‘A meditation on colour’ as the blurb has it. It also considers journeys, mountains, the sea, a ship, love, Knossos, nature. . .

At the top of a page (and nothing is at the top of a page by accident in a book like this), after his main themes have been floated, Storhaug writes (p. 23) :

if there is any point it probably has to do with diversity, the
choice as close to infinite as makes no difference, comparing
one selection with another, one scratch, stick, stave with another,
forged/foreign coins jamming the appliance — otherwise cant
or song of the earth cantata, every beak busy with lyric alarm         

which tells us something of how he weaves the poem together, slipping between selections, between the sound and the look of words as well as the logic, stopping us in our tracks by switching into a foreign language, all the while ‘busy with lyric alarm’.

Take Venus. As Aphrodite, she ‘shakes / salt water / from her hair / settles in / on Mt Olympus’. (The ‘Table des Matières’ has it that this is against shaving the mons Veneris.) Read another three pages and ‘Venus in Transit’ opens with a ‘slow sweep against star chart’. Astrology? but these are the sweeping arms of a ship’s radar scanner which a few pages further on swing round and round like sycamore keys in the wind, though the writing has too much finesse to draw its comparisons so crudely:

(lest sweep of the beam
sow sterile seed
vessels in port
disable all scanners)

abled at sea
parabolic
wings
revolve
resolving
incoherent
scatter
to steer
by astrology

Venus, you see, is also a ship. ‘Day Crossing’ and ‘Night Crossing’ are printed over a bleached-out photograph of the good ship Venus with, yes, radar antennae over her bridge. The second stanza of ‘Day Crossing’ is typical of some of the lyric passages:

sun flash
on pearl wave
curls away
from the prow

‘pearl’ echoing the significant pearl of the opening meditation, ‘lost and found / in the device of a dream.’

I’m entranced by the shipping sections from the colours of the sea to the thud of the engines. ‘Travails of Aphrodite’ accounts for the history of the ship: ‘Gross tonnage 5406 / . / Laid up Norway September 1939. /Seized by Germans 1940. / Converted for war purposes at the Neptunwerft’ until her final breaking at Faslane in 1968.

It’s the section ‘Night Crossing’ that introduces the book’s title, with its final stanza:

the Greeks
never polished
their silver

and probably neither, if you read the ‘Table des Matières’ again, did the Minoans ­ so blue may be a code for silver in their wall paintings. Which leads us in the end to the discovery of another Venus in the section ‘Knossos, Chaucer and You’, discovered as a Knossos wall painting at the turn of the century and named ‘La Parisienne’ by archaeologists:

. . . words unearthed . . .
how they stongen were
unto the herte
when they
saw her first
after 3,000 years (à peu près)


I’ve been looking at the maritime imagery. I could write a couple of pages about imagery from the natural world. Another reviewer would give you the mountains (the word written vertically not being so high as the word fell on page 13). In ‘Oxygen: First Ascent’ Storhaug’s a climber too: ‘face against rock face / wet smell of granite’ A painter would certainly go for the colours which suffuse every page of the book; words are colour-coded and played with, as they are here with ‘maroon’:

the painter’s maroons
explode to mean signals
report about chestnuts
explain about colour
confusion of cannon
and clearly explaining
how maroons exploding
sound like cannon reporting

Words are handled as if they are physical objects, live things. He turns them inside out:

‘global’ preferred                         [Latin globus ]
for the name of the summit;
‘earth’                                            [Gothic airÞa ]
too radical?

(Yes, it is also as contemporary as this; published in May, it refers to 12th April in Baghdad: ‘Free World marines casting out Satan / save every memo at his Ministry of Oil.’ )

I’m aware of Storhaug-as-printer right through this book; you can’t not be: each page has been so carefully set. But he reminds you deliberately, too:

START OF FOURTH SIGNATURE
AND STILL NOT SITTING STILL

(He started out, remember, meditating.) He often laughs at himself like this, wondering ­ (that Table again) ­ ‘Does hand-setting of metal type cure logorrhoea?’ This book is not set in metal but with

laughter as leaning against the machine
as keys tap into bedrock
free silicon skies
grind up bytes of stars

So when I gather together all these ‘bytes of stars’, what do I have? I’m not sure. Each time I read the book, I discover connections, enjoy something new. It’s slippery, doubling back on itself and changing tack. I don’t know whether I’ll end up properly grasping what Storhaug is doing, ­ yet I’ll give it a good few more evenings: it’s exhilarating that someone’s made a book like this.

© Jane Routh 2003

 

for silver see blue

This is a collection-length sequence which starts within the frame of the medieval alliterative poem Pearl (the first title of the sequence is ‘Pearl-Diving Distractions for Students of Meditation Lost in an Arbour’, and is followed by the quotation ‘Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere’); it passes through upland areas and mountains in Italy, Scotland, Iceland, and Finland; it reaches back to the ancient Minoan civilization and its ‘Linear B’ script; and it is always deeply involved with ships and sea-travel. Its points of thematic focus are equally broad, but it seems to be particularly concerned with colour. Indeed, the title of the collection as a whole refers to colour conventions, as Storhaug’s notes on p. 62 explain:

‘[...] the Minoans may have polished their silver no more than the Ancient Greeks, thus making the colour blue more probable as a ‘code’ for silver on Minoan wall paintings.’

This concern with colour is manifest in moments such as the point in ‘Engine Telegraph: Full Ahead’ when the process of navigation is briefly considered:

towers on tors
cliff-top pyramid beacons
point the pilot ‘s way
-- navigate instead
by sap green, grey or brown [...]

What is significant here is that the second half of the stanza is proposing a mode of orientation that operates through colour: colour, in short, becomes something to steer by. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that, towards the end of the sequence, the way in which colour can function as a cultural mode of representing emotion is recalled (in the phrase ‘Egyptian joy was turquoise’). Indeed, the ‘Storytime’ section makes links between language and colour whilst also echoing the English-language rendition of the Homeric colour convention of the ‘wine-dark sea’ :

the alphabet a silver net
to catch each word
sung out
of the blue
of the wine-black
throat of the sea

Storhaug’s poetic vision, then, is significantly activated by and focused in the perception, rendition, and conventions of colour. However, for silver see blue is not just concerned with colour. It is also an attempt to represent a breadth of cultural and material moments - a breadth which might suggest that this sequence is nothing less than a far-reaching attempt to render a particular vision of European culture and (occasionally) its pan-global consequences and connections. Thus, the poetic scope incorporates recent political events, such as the anti-war protests in London on 28 September 2002 ( ‘Naturopplevelse in Johannesburg & London’) and the destruction of historic artefacts in the ransacking of Baghdad’s main museum that took place in April 2003 (p. 46). Moreover, there is, in such references, a distinct political edge. In ‘Naturopplevelse in Johannesburg & London’, for example, Storhaug considers the 2002 World Summit and suggests that ‘the corporate / shadow still hurls / the world / and all her train’

Set against such recent events is a concern with what seem to be accounting procedures in ancient culture, and the clay tablets on which such accounts were maintained:

accountable tablets
how much honey
tall ships / stories
scratched on clay
( ‘Directions for This Morning’ )

Elsewhere in the sequence, Minoan ‘Linear B’ script is considered, particularly the characters that make up the words for ‘honey’ and what the text calls the ‘accountable man of honey’. Alongside this, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the medieval alliterative Pearl are all woven into the texture — specifically, responses to Chaucerean ideas about love (‘Knossos, Chaucer and You’), Shakespeare’s Pericles story, and the pearl which slips away into the grass. Furthermore, Storhaug’s vision is very much rooted in the European material world. Thus, the excellent ‘Oxygen: First Ascent’, brings the reader ‘face against rock face’, while two pages later (p. 13) the differing heights of various European mountains and fells are considered (culminating in a fine moment of concrete poetics, in which the variousness of the heights involved is depicted). Indeed, ‘Oxygen: First Ascent’ works hard to provide both close-up detail of the physical environment ( ‘wet smell of granite’ ) and a broad perspective on landscape changes ( ‘see from lowland / how it starts to be [...] // "mountain"’), thus suggesting a significant activation of the ‘environmental unconscious’ that Lawrence Buell has proposed. In other words, by including both small and large-scale environmental observation, this particular moment of for silver see blue constitutes a significant attempt to throw off what Buell calls that ‘limiting condition of predictable, chronic perceptual underactivation [...] of all that is to be noticed and expressed’ (Writing for an Endangered World, p. 22).

Overall, then, the Europe of Storhaug’s construction in for silver see blue is a place that is crucially interconnected (typically by sea-travel); it is pan-globally involved (and not necessarily to positive effect); it is broadly an environment of mountains and sea; it is a plural place of many languages (the sequence uses Swedish, Norwegian, French, and the Linear B script alongside English); and it can all be swept up within an erotics of colour and sound (as both ‘Venus in Transit’ and ‘Diesel Recap’ make clear, a ship’s engines make music). Crucially, it is also a historically interrelated space — a culture in which, as ‘Knossos, Chaucer and You’ makes clear, the writings of a medieval English poet may help form an appropriate response, at the start of the third millennium AD, to a three thousand year-old fresco fragment from Knossos.

However, all this is merely scratching the surface: as I indicated earlier, this is a sequence of great depth and breadth and, as such, it simply escapes the small gestures of an initial review. For it to be appreciated more fully, I hope that for silver see blue receives the considerable readerly attention that it emphatically deserves.

© Matthew Jarvis 2003
University of Wales, Aberystwyth