REVIEW by Seki LynchNWR Issue 98
by Richard Poole
Richard Poole’s poetry collection Camelion
is an interesting series of poems written in the voices of both fictive and historical characters. The title poem, introducing the work in the prologue, sets up a morphing collection that shifts from Nero contemplating his place in the ages while examining himself in a mirror, to three jealous prostitutes bitching behind each others backs and Dorian Gray’s picture giving its interpretation of past events. Gods, vampires and animals all make an appearance in this ambitious amalgam of verse. But if poetry aims at the perfect expression of the truths of the world through a fictive or factual framework, then somehow the wonder which should accompany it seems to be missing from Camelion
Poole is primarily a fantasy writer, and it is easy to see in this collection that he has an imagination gifted in the rendering of worlds. His command of language and possession of a distinct voice are also evident. Still the reader is left wanting. Most probably the reason for this concerns truth. Though Poole’s use of the first person gives his lines immediacy, it also presents a problem. Self- awareness in protagonists can be an effective device, but there is a need for delicacy in its employment; while egotistical characters may or may not be forgiven, the real measure of whether a self-aware character is successfully drawn is the credibility of his or her voice. The two main ingredients of this credibility are, first, the way something is said (the idiosyncratic intonations of speech) and, second, what the character is actually saying. While the former is often the harder of the two to make convincing, it seems that it is the latter which is the more troublesome for Poole. In Camelion
, the reader finds that what is said often undermines the authority a first person perspective should bring. The reader asks, ‘Who really thinks this way about themselves.... Perhaps one or two characters, but all of them?’ One can only assume that the voices given to these characters have been designed to talk about
them rather than as
them, and that the first person frame is a way of making this experience feel more intimate. The self-declarations sound false because the descriptions of self are based on the ideas and opinions of others, whether these have been formed over time (in relation to historical characters) or through critical interpretation, reading and rereading (in relation to fictional characters). The characters talk about themselves through the filter of the poet’s imagination, and while Poole has truths to tell, the characters aren’t allowed their own – they are characters speaking of their own caricatures, puppets speaking of the things they mimic. The reader wonders if Poole has let romanticism lead the writing of these poems. If so, perhaps they can only be enjoyed if we are able to indulge ourselves along with him.
That said, Poole’s technical abilities are evident, and lines of excellence do occur when coupled with characters’ contemplation of things other than themselves. Often these contain details which offer insight into the world of the poem, illuminating pieces of life. One such example is in ‘Dinner At The Ambassador’s’, 1584:
Lord H. toys with the partridge on his plate. It is tough
and he is a fastidious man. It has not been hung enough
to fetch the flavour out, the rank gameyness of the thing –
and the gameyness of the game, naturally, is everything. But
Lord H. is brilliant, and brilliance is dangerous.
Still one notices here that the observation comes not from Lord H. himself, but from the guest. ‘Tut-ankh-amon in his Tomb’ also has some beautifully crafted lines:
Lying with flowers in the darkness,
wild celery, leaves of the willow,
strewn petals of blue lotus,
woody nightshade, the mandrake’s fruit,
I can smell none of these, I dream
Though this works better than Nero’s bragging ‘Nothing you can imagine can appal me, nothing’, it still has the flavour of a person talking about someone else, rather than about themselves.
One surprising element of Camelion
is the humour, present in poems such as ‘Advice to Virgins’ in which the speaker in the poem rebuts Fanny Fern’s axiom ‘The way to a man's heart is through his stomach’ by stating:
Don’t cook your goose with Fanny’s ancient lie:
the way to a man’s heart is through his fly.
Ultimately the merits of this collection contribute to its frustrations, as the reader is constantly aware of potential unfulfilled. There is no questioning the scope of Camelion
, nor Poole’s skill in the crafting of verse, but readers will too often find themselves searching amongst these lines for magic, which, like the chameleon, is no sooner spotted than disappears.
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