Ballads of the Alone – Rupert M Loydell, book review

Originally posted October, 2013

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No Difficulties Here

If you like your poetry linguistically rich, at times playful, willing to surprise and always honest in its revelation of self [or is it another?], then Rupert Loydell’s latest collection Ballads of the Alone will delight and please.

These modern ballads – patterns really but defined by their precise and repeated shape and structure – are based on the visual and written work of named photographers, this context and background outlined in the introduction by H.L. Hix, the American poet and academic.

It is an intriguing introduction. Much of the first page is intent on explaining the poems’ ‘difficulty’ by way of laboriously, to me, exploring the etymology of the word ‘difficult’. I don’t actually find the poems difficult – ‘complex’ perhaps, but for me this has a positive connotation whereas ‘difficult’ does not – and as I am clearly in disagreement with that focus I naturally leapt at one of Hix’s rather fancy extrapolations when he unravels the following ‘It is disfacilis: i.e. it is not facile’ because, in the spirit of Hix’s microscopic deconstruction, I would say that there is a wonderful felicity with language in these poems. Where the introduction is of more interest and pertinence for me is when Hix explains how the convention of these poems is ‘that of ekphrasis, the description or evocation in poetry or another work of art’.

It may seem churlish to have a go at an introduction which is actually enthusiastic about the work, but the self-indulgent start put me off. Indeed, Hix’s examination of the link between Loydell’s poetry and the photographers from which they borrow and reinvent is knowing and informative.

To the poems: they are wonderful. I do respond in the first instance to their sound, the sound of language carefully crafted to surprise or sooth and so much inbetween, even to suggest a ‘difficult’ observation in as much as it needs time to unravel or remain mysterious. What I mean is I am not looking for meaning. It’s an impression, and each ‘ballad’ offers just that. And because they are impressionistic they don’t bear easy analysis or explanation – perhaps what Hix was, for me, overstating. I enjoy not knowing and do not find this a problem.

But I am in danger of over-working around them too. It is best to look at two examples, two that I particularly like, but it could be a random choice as each is as effective and engaging as the other, in part because of the precise replication of a pattern. The two I will look at are from the second section Multiple Exposure, poems after Aaron Siskind. The first is number 9:

another set of ruined buildings
ghosts of structures such as these
inculpate query sausage tilt
bridges, girders, lines and chains
a peculiar perspective

light brown coat of rain
a favourite of my father’s
cornflake wrestler resurgence monk
drifting fog among dripping pines
living worlds of mutual trust

a sort of shrinking into life
phantom pains within my chest
volcanic upright belligerent jump
sheets of paper blackened with print
balance of time as well as form

I love each third line of words in each stanza. Because I love words, but because here I love the selection and juxtapositions and jokes. Inculpate is a great overbearing word – to accuse – but it is linked or not – yet it’s in the same line – with sausage and I don’t really care if that has any significance, and it certainly isn’t difficult, but it is a little surprising and certainly quite funny. The same goes for the enjambment that leads us into cornflakes, and the fact there is a wrestler rather than ‘milk’ is strangely reassuring. That may sound like jest but I am quite serious. It is as I have said the sound and the surprise that delights. Of course, it is also the ruined buildings and the ghosts of structures, the mention of a father, and then the shrinking and phantom pains as well as blackened and balance that all disturb.

hundreds of forgotten pictures
sometimes layered deep
exclamation register irrigate chime
overheard rooms empty of noise
transparent moments such as these

love shows itself minute by minute
in ways that are easy to doubt
inverse armature liquorice cheese
alcohol has dulled its progress
formation dancing in the tide

the midday sun is strengthening
gravity become too much
cucumber traffic fearless grill
there is only absence in the world
balance of time as well as form

And you will have noticed that the last line is repeated, and this is the case for every poem in each section, but that is a separate repeated line for each of the five sections. I could, but won’t, revel in the third lines again, and I haven’t yet explored the food references, but I leave that to your own recommended reading. I like individual lines like overheard rooms empty of noise because that does make me stop and think.

So much of what is in these poems is found and appropriated from external sources – the ekphrasis which underpins allthat locating meaning is bound to be a fractious journey and I would much rather enjoy the dislocating but strangely reassuring ride rather than be over-concerned with the destination. I rather think that is exactly what Rupert Loydell has chosen too, and he would seem to have enjoyed it in the writing as much as I am in the reading.

Purchase here.

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