Monday, August 10, 2009
Review: Make Nothing Happen by Rufo Quintavalle
W.H. Auden's well known observation "poetry makes nothing happen" can be interpreted in two ways. Normally, it is understood to be something of an inditement on poetry of the type: no matter how hard poetry tries, it is unable to change anything. But it can also be read a second way, as a comment on the art of poetry itself. Poetry makes nothing happen because it is not required to move forward in the way that a story does. It can be a sort of frozen moment.
Quintavalle's approach to making nothing happen is to follow the dictum: "less is more". Many of the poems in his first collection "Make Nothing Happen" are short, some consisting of only four or five words. They seem to ask: what is the minimum required of a poem? And by extension: what is the minimum required of a poet? If the minimum required is to exist: then what does it mean to exist?
It seems that from starting out to answer a very simple question, or perhaps because he has started out to answer a very simple question, Quintavalle has arrived immediately up against the thorny problems of existence: why do we exist, how real is our existence, what is the purpose of pain, how do we know who we are, why shouldn't we be someone else, will heaven save us, what will remain of us?
If you think providing answers to all these questions sounds a rather ambitious project for a pamphlet of 23 poems, likely to lead to something rather bloated and grandiose, then you would be mistaken. Here's an example of his approach: the poem "Keldur". From the outset, the poem appears straightforward and conversational, slyly humourous and personalised:
I don't understand anything: why I came into
this body, this life;
my wife says I think too much,
that I have too much free time,
but I wouldn't want less, and besides,
I'd hardly call it free.
But having welcomed us into the poem in this informal manner, he then poses a conundrum:
Up the road there is what was a house
and now is a building on a farm;
before the house there was nothing,
and around the farm there is nothing still.
At first sight there seems to be no link between the first and second half of the poem. But then we ask: is an analogy being drawn between his own body and a house? If it is the case, then what does it mean when the house is no more a house but simply a building on a farm? A collection of buildings produces something practical: a farm. The farm makes money, it pays for itself. But it doesn't provide any answers to the problems posed in the first half of the poem: "around the farm there is nothing still". Collective approaches, such as religion, are no more likely to throw up answers than individual approaches, such as poetry.
Many of the poems, while short, require considerable thought to understand what is going on inside them. In part, this complexity is achieved through playful use of language which amounts already to a distinctive Quintavalle style. It is the result of choosing line breaks that multiply the possible interpretations of a line:
There is a thing in pigeons freeze
and shake them they rattle sometimes
Or through over-extending a sentence with clauses so that unusual log-jams of words unexpectedly occur. For example, the "does what that" phrase below:
Layering a history
on history like concrete or that carpet
so plausible birds sat down on it to eat
does what that a newspaper doesn't do?
This collection marks a highly original debut. And while certain poems are as good as anything being written today, for example: Rocks, Milosz in California and Cathedral, it makes more sense to view the poems as constituent parts of a whole that is characteristically Quintavallian.
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Make Nothing Happen by Rufo Quintavalle is available from Oystercatcher Press at a cost of £4.