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The Lexicographer's Love Song And Other Poems
Ian Watson
DNA Publications chapbook $5

review by Steve Sneyd

This is Ian Watson's first poetry collection. But he has long included poems in novels - as he says, "whenever one of the characters was a poet and needed to demonstrate this!" - as in those set on a far world echoing the epic realm of the Kalevala, The Books Of Mana, key figure a poet-shamaness. 'Her' poems do not appear here, but one that does, Andromeda (In Chains), is from a novel, the 1988 Whores Of Babylon.
   In recent years, he has turned more intensively to poetry - in his own words, "poems sprouting like mushrooms" - which has appeared in a variety of genre magazines, among those credited in this collection for prior publication (there are also some previously unpublished poems present) being American titles Dreams & Nightmares, Mythic Delirium, Star*Line, and Weird Tales, as well as Interzone in the UK, Watson making a rare exception to that magazine's traditional no-poetry policy.
   The poems here, all fluidly, often compulsively, readable as they pull you along, play ingeniously with a variety of 'what if' ideas, giving them the solidity of "a local habitation and a name." Predominantly the ideas are those of cutting-edge science and its interface with science fiction, although there are also poems that relate more to science fantasy, traditional or mythological fantasy, and even 'ordinary' (i.e. extraordinary) everyday reality. Among concepts intriguingly explored are the ostensibly counterintuitive ideas of modern quantum physics, time travel, alternative universes, the extremes of organ transplantation, and the freighted, often fraught, interaction of imagination's inner world and exteriority.
   As general remarks, it can be said that, where there is an element of didacticism - and when, arising from that, on occasion there is a tendency to try to cover all possible angles at the risk of loss of poetic intensity - it is made palatable by the strength of development the elegantly straightforward movement of the writing, and the vividness of situation, character-voice, language, and narrative. Indeed, narrative thrust is so much key to many of these poems that a reviewer needs to be as aware of the danger of being a spoiler as when reviewing fiction.
   A great strength is that large ideas, those which push the envelope of the imagination as they pose the difficult, even unanswerable questions, are never avoided: Watson as a poet is frequently an inheritor of the Metaphysicals, never in the least a fellow-traveller of today's generally ideas-averse 'mainstream' critical consensus about poetry. Nor is humour lacking to add palatable savour - although it must be said that on occasion this can stray into a somewhat adolescent blatancy putting it at odds with the deeper subtleties of a poem: this can also occur with titles, on occasion a billboard shout pre-agendaing the reader into inaccurately pigeonholing a poem.
   The long title poem, first in the book, provides a logical point to begin looking at some of the individual poems here. It wistfully re-mints the ancient Pygmalion idea of a creation taking on autonomous life. Discovering the adjacency of the word 'fiction' to 'feverfew' in a dictionary, made aware of the latter's role as a curative in pregnancy, the writer metaphors fiction as kind of confinement, "closeted with a brain-child,/ Giving birth... /In feverish labour". The birth pangs resulting from wordplay generate the perfect woman, Florizelle. At first the writer is in control, and ponders reworking her for a contemporary setting - "Wearing rings through your nose/And the coral atoll of your navel?" But the character takes over, not just his fantasies, but the very tools of his trade, infecting "all words,/ Flavouring them, scenting them./ She wanders through all books now,/ Altering the words they hold,/ Becoming any character she wants" until the poet feverishly cries out his insoluble dilemma: "Why did I ever conjure you?/0r did you conjure me?"
   Marsupials In Our Midst - The Explorer Of Mirabella Rehearses His Tale - the title's first half rather unnecessary signposting - delicately combines the strange and the curiously moving. The narrator, whore purchased in a jungle town, in a country he names no more than himself, post-coitally pretends sleep; spying on her in the cheap, moonlight-flooded room, he detects oddity in her concealment of his fee. Paying extra to explore further, he discovers "a pouch/ With two little teats inside". A characteristic Watson persona, he ponders many possible causes - sexual surgery, mutagenic cosmic ray or pollution effects, a secretive other evolutionary tree? What abides, however, is her irrepressible spirit surviving an uncaring world.
   In the remarkably timely Surgeons Of The Soul, technical advance serves religious fundamentalism. "Diagnostic monitors/ Mounted in most public doorways" detect spiritual backsliders; specialist surgeons then move in - "Through my psychoscope I see your soul/ Is now within your left testicle." and prepare to employ "instruments... To detect, clamp and mend the soul... Purity through surgery, my friend."
   Wintermute's what-if draws out the beautiful strangeness resulting "If people's ears/ crisped... by frost/ fell off and blew about in flurries" that "stalk as rudder" (a lovely image), begin to "scuttle" like a "mouse's/ brown body" that "flees/ the cat of the wind", thus explaining why 'winter' is "the silent season". Seasonal metamorphoses are pursued - "Will spring shriek anew/ while fresh ears grow from nubs" - into a metaphysical analysis of the relationship with heard language itself; "autumn... plugs up our hearing canals.../ with roots of dead nouns/ with the flaked claws// of verbs that wounded".
   Pleasingly worded, if initially somewhat over indebted to past poetic convention in its anthropomorphising of the one-sided relationship of Sun, gentle-imaged allurer, "Trembling meniscus/ On gravity's deep pool", and love-ignored "Marble-odalisque" Moon, whose "jealousy/ ..towards World,/ Envy that steals the breath/ Away, crusting acne", causes her to conspire/ To seed nightmare", Otherwhys morphs into far future event, when Moon will "plunge/ Into warm World,/ Shattering herself/ In a rupturous and forced embrace./ ... / From this genocidal union" will issue a "new race/ Of tortoise-roaches ..That dream/ And ask why" in their wondrously strange dwelling place, "Around which the breasts/ Of lunar mountains rear."
   Another long poem, The Time Traveller Instructs And Implores, voices MIT Professor and time-traveller Tom Heck, returned to lecture, and hector, Sir Isaac Newton into achieving a viable Theory of Everything, bringing him up to date on contemporary physics, telling him where he went astray, his harangue arousing a bristling, almost paranoid reaction from the 83-year-old genius. This poem is a convincing tour-de-force, which uses humour of character to painlessly give a compelling lesson in the history of science and its might-have-beens.
   Oh Happy Franz! is a gentle, memorably likeable poem, portraying Kafka gifted with an imagination attuned to joy, as the officials who arrive to go through the motions of investigating allegations against him bring the gift of a lavish breakfast, and, in his remembered dream, beetle metamorphosis was, not nightmare but gateway to rich reward - "the start/ Of another wonderful day."
   True Love's reductio ad absurdum of the lovers' cry, "Let us become of one flesh!", involves body part exchange until "He could make love to himself instead" (A Zeitgeist poem indeed, since, in 'real life' experimental artist Genesis P. Orridge recently had breast implants to get closer to his partner!).
   In the grimly non-PC tradition of Belloc's Cautionary Tales, Death By Dyslexia depicts over-protective parents, thinking to aid their dyslexic daughter's comprehension by spooneristic language-mangling, instead causing horrific misunderstanding, yet learning nothing by their mistake: "we send her mirror-letters since she has gone away" A "twitch in spacetime" sends a modern Israeli gunship to be shot down over the WWII Warsaw Ghetto; only one witness survives Auschwitz to remember, miscomprehendingly, how an "avenging angel ..died"; as of the whole "Abnormal, grotesque and monstrous" Nazi era, the poem says, quoting Nietzsche, "no truth,/ Only interpretations", the punning title, GhettoBlaster, making for an uneasy start to a poem full of pain.
   The growth phenomenon of supposed alien kidnap fuels Abductee - Melissa's encounter with "amorphous Greys,/ Slippery oversize foetuses" is unmasked, explanatory layer upon layer, to the reductive bottom-line: "Abducted by yourself, you find/ There never was a self to lose"
   In Universe Zoo, new universes born beyond wormholes bizarrely develop animal characteristics - "giraffe universes/ Where you can see ..forever,/ Fierce tiger universes... Annihilating life wherever it arises", etc. The poem challenges us to "poke a hole/ From our cage, into otherness."
   BonBon, France-controlling computer, Time-Fugues nuisances, in Next French Revolution, into an altiverse Anglo-Saxons, not Normans, conquered, unleashing a flood of trans-Manche jests, before real and unreal realms climactically re-link: "revolutionaries... dynamite/ The Eiffel tower, better known/ ..as Queen Victoria's Spire... in../ Baseline reality - the same tower/ Shudders and snaps a leg/ And tumbles."
   In Fossil Man, the dead "Mister Stone" - spot the nominative determinism! - "petrified.../ By the latest nano-technique" baffles alien archaeologists after being "inserted/ Into a suitable niche in the rock", while in Let There Be Darkness: An Origin Myth asks what if God, having "a million alternate/ Universes to sort out/ At the same time as ours", created night rather than light? Making the best of His tongueslip gives "the Vampire domination/ Over the cattle of the night." Equally non-judgementally, indeed all but sympathetically, The Quantum Stalker Woos Miss Jones portrays him excusing his compulsive behaviour to his victim in the language of Heisenberg's physics: "an observer is entangled/ With whatever he observes", while Never Ever dryly universalises self-deception: split the self temporally, let tidying, and guilt, be Yesterday's burdens - as for death, "I enjoy immortality./ Mister Tomorrow... the one/ Who dies."
Lexicographer's Love Songs

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