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IN THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF EARTH:
Cal Doyle reviews Rosalin Blue's début poetry collection
Cal Doyle's poetry has appeared in a number of magazines and journals. He has read as part of Poetry Ireland's Introductions Series and is the poetry editor for wordlegs. He lives and studies in Cork.
In the Consciousness of Earth
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Rosalin Blue’s debut collection of poetry In the Consciousness of Earth is an effort by the poet to address some of humanity’s most pressing issues regarding the environment and social inequality. These are unquestionably noble concerns for any artist of any stripe to pursue. Poems such as ‘From Above’, ‘Cherryblossom’, and ‘Judgement’ show us a poet of confidence and in admirable command of her craft. And her translations from the German of Alfred Wolfenstein and Else Lasker Schüler allow us to see that Blue is a poet who is willing to fully interrogate the poetics of the tradition from where her work emerges. But to pursue such a grand undertaking successfully requires a careful and consistent attention to both craft and logic, and to employ open, pluralist, “speakers” in the poems. This collection, unfortunately, fails to use these tools consistently, despite Blue’s obvious potential.
In the opening poem 'Writing' we find the poet caught in a trap from which she cannot escape. Her “mind strives helplessly” to the end of writing poetry, where we find her “Invaded by the Sprit free / in trance enslaved”. Aside from the unsettling idea of a person being “invaded” by the “Spirit free”, this "spirit free" is immediately undermined by the fact that it has "enslaved" the person that it inhabits. This mixing of terminologies associated with both liberty and the military is not only confused, it also reproduces the kind of cognitive dissonance associated with the rhetoric of the George W. Bush propaganda machine, which is clearly not the poem’s intended goal.
Perhaps the poet is playing games? No – one soon discovers that the book consistently undercuts itself. In the 'Author’s Note' (which amounts to a de-facto statement of poetics) Blue writes that her poems aim to shape “life with re-spect towards all fellow beings” [sic]. This respect to all other humans is cast aside in the poem 'In the Station' where we find “beer bottled hooligans”, “dirty old men” and “dark shadowed, scrubby street-tykes” in a dance of urban delinquency which is met with stern disapproval from the poem’s speaker. (Young men on skateboards seem to be a particular thorn in Blue’s side: they are scornfully presented in this poem and in 'Cork Style' for no other reason than an apparent liking toward knocking them.) The apparent pluralism and universal acceptance expressed in the 'Author’s Note' turns out to be a red-herring: the poems are partisan, each with an agenda that is fixed rather than fluid.
There is an uneasy marriage of idealism and trenchant moralism which adds to the collection’s own undoing. We find this combination working at its best in 'The Writer'. The poem calls for us to avoid “mistakes repeated from [the] last century” by “shaping life to the consciousness of [the] earth”, which ignores the fact that some of the worst human atrocities of the twentieth century were committed in the name of shaping people to fit into one single world-view. But this is clearly unintentional and not as sinister as it reads—it is just that the poem lacks any clear, critical, logic. At its worst it works as clumsily moralising, and at its best it operates as a dragon swallowing many of its disparate tails: it begins with the Kenneth Goldsmith-esque “I am a writer who does not write” and winds up encouraging the reader to take up politics (via criticising the negative impact that politics has on people). It does worry the reader: here is a political poet who takes her eye off the ball so often that she produces a misfortunate sense of dread at almost every turn.
It is also in 'The Writer' that the reader is treated to the only reference of the internet in the entire collection (“cybertext whizzing / computer computer computer, www”) and it begs the question: if the poetics of the collection is geared (rightly or wrongly) toward a shifting of consciousness, why has Blue almost completely ignored what is arguably one of the most powerful tools for the shaping of global consciousness in the book? The question remains unanswered, but the glancing reference to the internet amounts to one of the most dynamic passages in the text.
We also learn that poet is not afraid of posing questions of her own. In 'By the Sea', one of the collection’s stronger poems, the poem provides its own unravelling by devoting four lines to a redundant rhetorical question:
Millions of years
written in these rocks
I wonder who
reads them now[?]
The last thing one needs when posing a rhetorical question is for the addressee to counter with a rhetorical question of their own ("geologists?") because the mask of authority will be lifted and the whole argument will fall to pieces. The worst thing about this coming to pieces is that this is a decent enough poem. Lines like “The sea / is lapping / like a cat” and “beyond every / unknown bay” reveal an ability for precision and lucidity which is absent from the vast majority of the book.
But the most frustrating thing about this collection is not the fact that it’s confused, imprecise, dogmatic, and clichéd: it is that Rosalin Blue can be a good poet and can also, at times, be a compelling performer of her work. Which poses the question of how she set about compressing the dialogue that exists between text, performer, and spectator (and the meaning that is derived from such a performance) into a dialogue that exists between the text and the reader alone. Many of her peers are exemplars in this regard (Dave Lordan, Colm Keegan, and Kitt Fryatt spring to mind, for instance) but Blue falls far too short of this standard when it comes to putting her work down on the page. So much so that the speakers’ egos and entitled senses of subjectivity coalesce to a distasteful effect in too many of the poems: “the Giant Goddess / smiles with me”, “sleepily / soothing me”, “makes / my heart sing”, “into my third eye / melts a Pentecostal light” – etc. Too often the reader feels like a spectator left on the outside looking in and, with a title like In the Consciousness of the Earth, it really should be the other way around: they should be invited into the interior of the poems, to look out with them. And that, unfortunately, is very rarely the case.
©2013 Cal Doyle
Poems by Cal Doyle in Southword
'Lines for John Berryman': poem by Doyle in Burning Bush 2
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