Saturday, March 12, 2005

NEW! Review of Peter Dent

Adversaria by Peter Dent. Stride, £5.95.

Reviewed by Ezekiel Black

Thumbing the pages, one can see that Peter Dent's Adversaria is tightly themed. Every poem contains six unrhymed couplets, minimal punctuation, a hemistich, and is headed by a concise title. Since the line breaks create square blocks of text, the forty poems are similar, almost indistinguishable at first glance. Yet this construction is appropriate considering the brief, three-month period in which it was written. Adversaria is a complete project recording the everyday, a collection of quips, remarks, and miscellany, as Dent says in “Containment Unalloyed?”
Five ladies putting another time to shame
Yet waiting         someone there must be here

To report          on the quieter tones the excited air
In a field that riddles        order with escape

When strict form meets strained diction, Dent captures the tension between poetry and conversation, between “order and escape.” Adversaria is a poetic survey of the chaotic world.

While Dent acclimates to the style, the book develops, mirroring a dialogue. Individuals do not begin conversations immediately, since they must acknowledge certain mores, like greetings. Similarly, Adversaria must recognize tradition before it can realize its goal, before mimicking a conversation. In the beginning, Dent uses anastrophe to honor the history of poetry, a formal introduction, like someone respecting another's past with “Hello. How are you doing?” In “Half-Lives and Playback,” “wind impossible” is inverted; in “Exemptions,” “winter bleak” is inverted; and in “Telegrams,” “things invaluable” is inverted. Before Adversaria can advance, it must slog through formalities. Also, when one begins reading the book, he or she notices the difficulty of the new form. As the reader continues, though, he or she finds a niche, and the novelty dissolves. Notice the shift from an early poem to a later poem (“Perception” and “Intrigue,” respectively): “New seasonal light        to freshen up        my / First is in improbable        clues come last” versus “Neater than needed        all consequence has / Its place        in official or unofficial secrets.” While the first poems are alien, due to their unusual diction, the later poems become comfortable, like a conversation: initially, the exchange is slow, but as the individuals grow accustomed, the discourse becomes engrossing and enriching. The individuals are invested. By the end of Adversaria, the reader will be absorbed.

Since the book chronicles everyday language, it is laden with colloquialisms, including idioms, quotations, oppocoinu, and informal questions. In the first poem, a colloquialism appears, and the trend begins, spanning the entire book. The phrase “true to form,” from “Perception,” is familiar--as if harvested from speech. The idioms continue in later poems with “easy on the eye,” “keep a good eye on,” “make ends meet,” “none the wiser”--basically one for every poem. Overall, the phrases are the base, the touchstones for the otherwise floating text. Without these handles, the reader would be swallowed by the narrative-free, image-driven poetry.

Similarly, quotations, which appear less frequently, nonetheless serve as footholds. While these devices ground the reader, others are confusing, like an uncertain dialogue. When one reads “Till our two heads get together        check // Effects in        'Paradiso' has a ring to it,” he or she notices the oppocoinu, where a work is used by both the subsequent and antecedent lines. The individual could read the excerpt two ways: “Till our two heads get together        check // Effects in 'Paradiso'” or “'Paradiso has a ring to it.” Within these lines, there are two complete sentences, hinged upon the word “Paradiso.” Like hasty or impromptu speech, the sentences spill into each other, without any clear distinction, but this is appropriate given the piecemeal construction of Adversaria. The oppocoinu is not isolated, but runs throughout the book, forging intricate rhetorical turns and a pleasant misunderstanding, always reminiscent of the conversation it parallels. Next are the informal questions. When reading, one will encounter an unexpected question mark. The question itself is not unexpected, but the placement of the mark is, especially when no signals are present (like “who,” “what,” or “when”). An individual might wonder if the move is necessary when a period would suffice, but, again, the book is an appeal to dialogue. In speech, questions are seldom introduced formally, which is evident in Adversaria. Notice the range between these two questions: “Pared down?” and “His / Familiar scale turned around        not failing?” The first question is logical and its form is common, but the second question is curious, almost strained, and would be adequate ending with a period. When individuals speak, they ignore convention, saying exactly what is necessary to convey their meaning, which is exactly what Dent accomplishes in Adversaria.

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