The Bridge at Uji, Tom Lowenstein, Shearsman Books, (2022). about : blank, Adam Wyeth, Salmon Poetry, (2021).
Reviewed by Ross Moore
The Bridge at Uji, a collection of 117 short, spare, untitled poems by Tom Lowenstein, takes a bridge in a suburb south of Kyoto as its inspiration. Lowenstein describes in the preface how he observed the bridge and its traffic for half a day ‘some years back’, then, on his return to London, ‘the physicality of the bridge returned qua metaphor. . .’ The resultant poems form a sequence where, as the preface has it, ‘that metaphorical gesture repeats’: the poems consider transit, movement, being in one state and heading to another. The opening poem is both (literally) inviting and representative of the collection:
Of all the directions in which
the bridge could lead us
there is just one which has been built in,
offering the illusion of simplicity.
So, gratefully, we’ll take this.
For all their brevity, these poems tend towards the philosophical rather than the imagist. In ‘14’ the narrator states that each step taken across the bridge
[. . .]
proclaims the assumption
that personally I matter. All life forms
require space in which to express
themselves without exclusion
or obliteration of the other.
Thus the way forward remains
conditioned by ambiguity.
The best of these poems don’t attempt to resolve their ambiguities, in the manner of Monet’s ‘Houses of Parliament’ which, in Lowenstein’s description of the half light of the painting, becomes ‘a democracy of phenomena / escaping continually from itself.’ (‘52’)
These poems incline, maybe too frequently, towards aphorism. When his philosophies become rather too neat, the results can be underwhelming: ‘For like the cat, I am happy / with a few smallish things / in my porridge helping’. (‘66’) Or ‘This was just one genre. / The variety within it, / however, expressed everything.’ (‘92’) Rather than those set in their knowingly paradoxical ways, the more successful poems grapple with what is unsure, explore ambiguities, or end on a note like that of ‘42’ in which the narrator finds: ‘But then we will for ever be out of date, / and the grand children will have their unknowable posterity.’
After 117 pages of poems, which are each often four lines or less, the aphorisms can start to lose impact. There are exceptions; further into the collection there is some formal variation, with numbers ‘27’ through to ‘43’ containing longer poems. Much space together with so much brevity provides a sense of motion as the reader is propelled ever-forward to the next poem; as poem ‘38’ has it:
[. . .]
the onrush of the bridge continued.
The water was as ever.
Everything’s in motion.
And the bridge was no exception.
A poem such as number ‘4’ might induce the reader to pause for a while:
Some people I know cross lightheartedly
and disdain to make a fuss. There are others
for whom a direct line to the other side
represents the ultimate labyrinth.
The quasi-philosophical content suggests poems that are intended to be pondered over, however the volume’s structure, and the brevity of individual pieces, encourages the reader to keep turning the pages. The result is a collection that feels strangely contradictory.
Early in the collection, the poems stay close to the metaphorical bridge with its suggestion of passage and transition. ‘2’ contemplates ‘the far side of the bridge’, ‘5’ notes that no-one will ‘. . . empathise with a trajectory / which appears so fatuously simple / but which opens an almighty gulf.’ Number ‘17’ is worth quoting in full:
The tedium of crossing.
And footfall of a million ghosts
on the darker rushing.
Nothing lasts. It is merely interrupted.
One thing after another.
As we move through the sequence, the poems stray further from the metaphorical vicinity of the bridge; nevertheless they often hinge upon the transition between two points. So, in ‘48’, ‘. . .The negative drops away. / Its fall to the pole opposite / engenders a condition of Nothing . . .’ Poem number ‘49’ plays earth off against sky and ‘51’ negotiates air and water. Recurring motifs and images provide further levels of connection throughout the collection. Connections can be subtle; ‘71’ implores ‘Don’t hammer quite so / on the keyboard . . .’ and this ‘hammering’ is picked up by the mention of a woodpecker near an ash tree in the facing poem. The frequency with which Monet is alluded to within poems ‘50’ to ‘56’ implies a miniature sequence within the sequence. The numerical appellations of the poems suggests that readers might discern such patterns for themselves. Lowenstein uses recurrent typographical imagery to good effect. Referring to the form of his poems, he wonders about these printed words which
. . . scuttled once
from the left.
How is it now they’ve piled
in the left hand margin?’ (‘32’.)
Later poems in the sequence contemplate the passage of time, with the emphasis on what gets worn down. From poem number ‘79’: ‘We scratch a few marks / and time erodes them. / The erosion of itself eroded.’ Poem ‘81’ reflects on ‘. . . phone texts I have learned to make / and which today’s practitioners / have rendered obsolete already.’ By ‘97’ this sense of diminution extends to the work itself:
How weak and mouldy
these lines will appear.
Not even assembled
in a well-funded archive
by well-meaning and underpaid library assistants.
Unsurprisingly for a writer in his eighties, there is tendency to weigh things up and Lowenstein views his own achievements unsparingly:
Oh, I belong in that tradition.
Its very existence being
an exclusive context,
the lovelier for my relegation
to the margin. (‘101’)
Meanwhile ‘105’ asks rhetorically: ‘Do I love this mountain / for an eminence / that’s excluded me?’ Lowenstein sums up his work as ‘merely a struggle to inscribe sentences’ (‘103’), and questions, in ‘115’, the validity of even this vocation, ‘Oh the iniquity, in the context / of global desperation, / to be scribbling these verses.’ The real worth of his endeavours can be found in the accurate, insightful clarity of lines such as these, on which the poem ends: ‘Perhaps not adding to the culture. / But contributing, at least, / to an alignment with its potential.’
One of many ideas explored in Adam Wyeth’s about:blank is the space between something and nothing, or what might germinate from almost-nothing. In the preface, about:blank is glossed as both an I.T. term for ‘a momentary hiatus before the required window opens’, and as ‘a starting point’. Technically, and somewhat pedantically, in computing terminology ‘about:blank’ is a page that belongs to the web-browser rather than the internet so it could well be taken as a starting point rather than a ‘blank’ or dead-end reached along the way. The epigraphs to the volume quote from Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. In response to ‘They’re blank, mate, blank. The blank dead’ the character Hirst responds: ‘Nonsense’.
From the start then, Wyeth emphasises that the ‘blank’ his collection explores is a blankness with potential. Early in the volume he writes:
I look at the sky and realise I can’t move, I am paralysed by this thought.
The wind blows grains of sand on my face.
Everything I’ve known before is washed away. I realise that everything that I
thought I was,
is just the surface, and that what is true is blank. (p.32)
about:blank is set in contemporary Dublin, a Dublin that reaches us through fragments and impressions. The volume opens and (mainly) closes in Grosvenor Square in Rathmines, moving through four sequences made up of prose-poetry, monologue, and a dramatic sequence. The collection’s formal diversity is likely related to the fact that about:blank was premiered as performance at the Dublin Theatre Festival in the summer of 2021 and also exists as a digital download. The fragmented form of the sequence can conceivably be viewed as a transcript of a performance piece as easily as the performance may be viewed as an adaption of a poetry collection. Adam Wyeth has commented that he had some type of performance in mind as he wrote about:blank and the formal hybridity seems intrinsic to the sequence. An intertwining of genres keeps the reader moving through the sequence with a narrator ostensibly searching for a lost cat, a glance between protagonists Stephen and Claire, the nature of what exists or doesn’t exist, all of which parallels the act of writing – the something out of nothing, that is maybe the archetypal ‘about:blank’. The sequence touches on issues of writerly control and appropriation (‘Something seen is something taken.’) More often what is emphasised are the dialectical possibilities within the different fragments and actions that the sequence alights on:
They don’t even exist, which is a crazy proposition, because we know very
well, or did, that two strangers, a passer-by and a passenger are always with us.
The glimpse passes in a second, but the thought attached to that glimpse
lingers and leads to something else, something hidden that must come out.
An essence. (p.37)
Wyeth’s regenerative imagery is a compelling feature. At one point, both the lost cat and the passing glance give way to the image of Claire remembering a panther in Dublin Zoo earlier in the day and they all converge in a traumatic episode:
. . . Two eyes the other side of the glass
like headlights, puzzled her out.
They shone into the back of her mind, just as her gaze
had entered earlier that day into the panther’s cage,
dead in the centre of its black pupils.
Its gaze now her gaze, totally dark and expressionless.
Sucked into the other side. A computer
wiped clean of its data. (p.56)
As the above suggests, about:blank repeatedly stresses the intrusive and determining nature of surveillance capitalism:
Claire knew then
her life was not her own:
she was in someone else’s hands,
being shaped in ways
she could not control…
An image erased yet somehow known.
This is the way of no return. (p.44)
While this might be overly explicit, the sequence makes implicit connections between this form of surveillance and the act of writing, connections which Wyeth occasionally brings to the surface:
Has language altered our reality
that we move in a hall of mirrors,
onto the world
and only seeing
what is thrown back at us? (p.42)
If this is an overly determined world, it is also demonstrated to be an associative one, but rather than a neat coherence of imagery the overall effect of is to provide fragmentary impressions, as though overheard throughout the city. The shifting genres also keep the tone impersonal, even as we eavesdrop on a protagonist’s thoughts. While the shifts in genre are dramatic, in later sections, ‘Yoga for Beginners’ and ‘The Wrongs and Rites of Grosvenor Square’, Wyeth continues to circle around his thematic preoccupations. A character, Medbh, asks an unfamiliar neighbour what she is writing:
Medbh Nothing? And you’ll keep working on it will you … I mean until you have something, concrete?
Writer Perhaps. (p.92)
More than a few people, incidentally, use ‘about:blank’ as their home page on their web browsers, preferring this blank vista to the ubiquitous home screens of the search-engines. In this vein, about:blank might be taken as Wyeth’s exploration of the idea of the starting point, of blankness as a blank page or clean sheet. This is Wyeth’s third collection and it displays a courageous artistic restlessness. The majority of his previous work has consisted of skilful formal and lyrically modulated poems, which have garnered praise from, among others, Derek Mahon and Harry Clifton. It is quite something, for a writer at this stage, to so decisively take a leap into the about:blank.