Seeing Through the Eye

Eye-Baby by Lawrence Sail. Bloodaxe, 2006. 63 pages

As Reviewed By: Lorne Mook

The October 2007 issue of Contemporary Poetry Review was devoted to Louis MacNeice, in recognition of his centenary year. I begin my review by recognizing another poet’s birthday: on the 28th of this month, William Blake turns 250. The last line of an oft-quoted bit of Blake verse has been on my mind as I have been reading the considerably younger (65, to be exact) British poet Lawrence Sail’s ninth book of poems, entitled Eye-Baby. Blake writes,

This life’s dim windows of the soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye.

A sentence on the back cover of the book reinforces my inclination to read Sail with Blake in mind: “Eye-Baby bears striking witness to the powers of perception, whether in terms of the observing—and reflecting—human eye, the camera lens or the mind’s eye of imagination and memory.” We shall see.

One way to think about how well Sail’s poems live up to their billing is to extrapolate from Blake’s words three pits that poets might fall into and to observe how well Sail avoids them. Happily, I can use strong poems from earlier in Sail’s career to help with the task. First, a poet can emphasize the through quality of perception so much that in an effort to get to the significance of a perception, he fails to perceive; failing to listen to Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi, he tries to get to the soul by distorting or ignoring the details of the body. As Sail puts it in “As When,” a poem from his previous book, The World Returning (2002), “image is too soon blurred to idea.” Sail has written poems that call more attention to perception of significance than to perception of details—allegories, that is. “Landfall,” from his first book, is a good example: two lovers, accustomed to the sea, navigate their way through the inland realm of their relationship; the allegory flows with apparent ease from the details. Here is the first of three stanzas:

No course of ours had steered to that inland state,
No special grace, or confluence of currents
Engineering new levels. Yet both of us—
You, with hair unwound on the moonwhite pillow,
Calmly taking my gaze; and I at last
Free of questions—knew we had never before,
Being seafarers, journeyed so far from water.

The poem concludes with the realization that the journey happened without a compass or chart, that their love has not been something “achieved.”

Another poem about love, “A Travellers’ Tale,” appears in Eye-Baby and gives the book its title. Here, two people drive through mountains, see old dancers dressed in black, stop at a cheap hotel, and head toward the border in the morning. The details themselves are not striking enough to hold my attention, and the poem seems forced into its allegorical ending:

It was only when they got close to the border, with nothing
to declare, that they sensed just how far they had gone
out of their way, on a loop past age and youth
through a zone of forgiving ghosts where acceptance seemed
common as goosegrass, and love itself an eye-baby
dancing in the eye of truth.

Sail, though, succeeds in another poem called “Alalia.” I didn’t know I was looking for a poem about dodgems [also known as bumper cars]; it turns out I was, and Sail has given it to me. The poem starts with

The moment before the dodgem car
slews to a halt,
when pumping the pedal
does nothing: all power gone.

This dodgem moment becomes a moment when the dying might have some truth to share yet do not speak. Then, in the last stanza, the poem returns to the dodgems, where the man who collects everyone’s money becomes a stand-in for Death.

Second, a poet might perceive with the eye but not through it, giving us if not a lie then at least less of truth than we might wish. In “At Possenhofen,” from his book Devotions (1987), Sail describes people at a beach who take a holiday from seeing through: “nobody sees more / Than what they see.” Sail, taking no such holiday, shows us a bit of human truth through showing us these people. Other early poems also accomplish this—“The Kite-Tail,” for instance, in which the tail begins as “a cursive script composed / on unlined paper, gestures / of florid loops, the wrist / turned over and over” becomes a fittingly ephemeral “writing / of the history of bravado.”

Eye-Baby opens with a poem that seems to manage something similar: “Swimming in Italy” begins with an interesting description of a pool and ends with swimmers “losing the world / even as they add it up, / counting it out in lengths.” Yet the poem does not quite work: the swimmers seem added to make the simple point that we lose time as we tally experience. Another poem, “Receding,” makes a more interesting point—about the experience of being on a ferry leaving England: “watching England disappear / is not simple,” for “At first the grey cliffs / hardly shrink” and so on. Sail has looked closely and shared what he has seen; but the poem ends by merely sounding poetic and leads to no truth:

and all the way over, drowning
the pulse of the engines,
the ship’s foghorn, lowing.

Finally, a poet’s language may dress up perceptions in superfluous and distracting clothing, betraying perhaps a fear that what has been seen with or through the eye is not interesting enough. Or, conversely, the language may be poorly tailored or ill-fitting and so make a perception that might have been interesting look dull. When they are working, words may embody the world so well that they become the eye through which we see. Sail says as much in his early poem “Shells.” Here, shells on a shore are emptied, and imagination re-invents what once inhabited them, hoping to see “Aphrodite as she is, a resurrection / not of words but flesh.” Or words may suggest something beyond the fleshly, the visible, like the word in Sail’s poem “Purple” that though “held steady” might “Yet spill over / Its own border / Into true silence.”

In a great deal of his previous work—especially in Out of Land, his “New and Selected” published in 1992—Sail finds the word, the syntax, and the stanza form (often rhyming) that make a great many of his poems clear windows into scenes and truths worth seeing. Besides the early poems I’ve already mentioned, I suggest reading “After the Reunion,” “Swimmer Returning,” “Snooker Players,” “Reichert’s Leap,” and “Wedding Song,” to name just five. But in recent books and now especially in Eye-Baby, Sail’s poems are often bloated with adjectives and adverbs and even fall into cliché, as in this passage that opens “Holiday Snap”:

Thirty summers ago, on a dusty footpath
somewhere in the Dolomites, the air
heavy with heat and resin, he must have turned
round and thought what a good picture it would make—

his mother in her red cardigan, white blouse
and blue denim skirt, making her way gingerly
down a rough stairway of slate, dwarfed between
the surrounding forest’s soaring pillars of fir trees.

Somehow the camera saw more than he bargained for—

Other poems, such as “Parenthetic,” “Sparrowgrass” and “White Peach,” use uninteresting sentence fragments and thus seem syntactically lazy. Still others, such as “Bosnia, 1996,” “King and Queen,” and “A Note to the Inheritors,” end with words that sound more profound than they are.

I conclude with a three-stanza poem that shows Sail at close to his worst and to his best. “Fountains” begins with an overly adjectival fragment:

Part of the culture,
you could say, with a backdrop
of lavish palaces,
triumphalist boulevards,
extravagant gardens.

Near poem’s end are words that I hope do not describe Sail’s present situation as a poet:

But already the basin
is drying out,
the pipework starting
to choke.

Between these passages are seven lines that, despite being a sentence fragment, could stand alone as their own strong poem entitled “Fountains”:

Water that splatters
back to the surface,
plentiful, ready
to resume itself,
to be used as a template
for shape, again
and again, like words

With some exceptions—“Catechism,” “Sentence,” “Alalia,” and “Reprise”—the poems in Eye-Baby are not Sail’s best work. Fortunately, if we desire words that flow plentifully, and that serve as templates through which to see the body and soul of the world, we can reread with pleasure many of Sail’s older poems as we wait for new poems to appear.

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