Hilary Menos reviews Savage Tales by Tara Bergin (Carcanet, 2022)
At over 200 pages, Savage Tales isn’t exactly a slim volume of poetry. But the word count is slim in the extreme. Many of the pages contain only a couple of lines of text; I hesitate to call them ‘poems’, ’fragments’ may be a better word. Bergin herself says they “don’t really look that much like poems, often they don’t even sound like poems”. She didn’t know what to call them. At one point she said, “I’ll call them essays. Because they are so short. It’ll be hilarious”. Mostly she refers to them as ‘pieces’.
So are these ‘pieces’ poems? They don’t use much in the way of heightened language, there’s little attention paid to any of the traditional poetic techniques, most of the lines don’t break at all, or if they do it doesn’t seem to matter where. They are sentences, or groups of sentences. They sound like quotes or aphorisms, or epigraphs. Some are short exchanges between two people. Some are clever, some are funny, some are odd, and some are just, well, meh. Here’s one example:
Queued for bread today. No one standing in the line
whispered in my ear through blue lips: Can you write about
this? If they had, I would have said: I can’t.
This refers, of course, to the story about Anna Akhmatova undertaking to bear witness to the suffering of the Russian people under Stalin’s Great Purge. In the preface to her collection of poems Requiem Akhmatova writes: “In those dreadful years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone recognised me. There was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she murmured into my ear (for we all spoke in whispers there) “So can you describe this?” And I answered, “Yes, I can.” It was then that something like a smile slid across what had once been her face.” (This story was first told to me by D. M. Thomas on the Greek island of Skyros in 1992 and I can still remember the quaver in his voice as he spoke Akhmatova’s response, in her original Russian: “да, я могу”.)
So are these ‘pieces’ poems? They don’t use much in the way of heightened language, there’s little attention paid to rhyme or rhythm or sonic play, most of the lines don’t break at all, or if they do it doesn’t seem to matter where
This ‘piece’ is titled (and more about the placement of titles later) ‘Not Anna Akhmatova’. Yeah, OK, the ‘Not’ is kinda funny, kinda clever in a knowing, modern, wry, name-dropping way. It might be problematic if you don’t know the story, though of course Google is your friend. But what is it saying, what is it doing? Making a link through history between Tara Bergin the Irish poet queueing to buy bread in a bakery in Western Europe in the 21st century and Anna Akhmatova the Russian poet dealing with persecution and repression in Russia in the late 1930s? Is Bergin saying she, Tara Bergin, doesn’t have it so bad? Well, yes. And so? Is she being self-deprecating? Is she saying that she can’t write as well as Akhmatova? Well, yes. And so? Isn’t she also being a bit elitist, with her references? Maybe there’s something else going on that I’m missing. Hmm. Let’s look at another of these little ‘pieces’. Here’s ‘Tenants and Landlords’:
Some people are tenants and some people are landlords.
Landlord: The landlord rules, not the tenant. I think you’ve
worked that out, haven’t you?
Me to the landlord: You need to come over. I’m sleeping
The landlord’s wife: We all have to do it some time in our lives.
I laughed out loud at this, and was pleased to find a really good one. I immediately read it out to my partner. He laughed too, but then he said, “Cheap”. And now when I read it I feel the same way. Funny the first time, and slightly funny the second time, but after that I turn past it without reading it. It’s done.
Some of these short ‘pieces’ do seem to me to carry some sort of resonance. From ‘The Bite’:
I speak to myself like a dog owner speaks to its dog. Leave it,
I warn myself. Drop it!
Or, from ‘The Trial’:
At 4 a.m. I speak to myself like a judge to the witness: just
answer the question.
Something in these resonates with me – I like her tone, perhaps, or maybe I simply relate to the content. But many of the pieces leave me shrugging, and increasingly aware of the vast amount of white space around them. Some reviewers have suggested that the white space before and after the ‘pieces’ holds the possibility of what might have happened, or of what might happen. This didn’t occur to me. I found myself more concerned with the environmental impact of printing 200 pages of mostly blank paper, and wondering what my publisher would say if I offered a manuscript that looked like this. Some readers have said that it has the effect of making you feel as if you are walking around an art gallery, looking at individual paintings. But this could probably be said of many poetry collections. My initial response was to feel that each word on the page – as there are so few of them – had to do something pretty special to justify using so much paper as a frame.
Many of the pieces leave me shrugging, and increasingly aware of the vast amount of white space around them
Let’s talk about the placement of the titles. The titles are at the bottom of the page, under the pieces, like the little boards next to paintings in a gallery. Why? At first, Bergin says, she couldn’t bear to give the ‘pieces’ titles. Eventually she decided there had to be “some sort of turning back to shine some kind of light on what’s going on” She describes the title as a “key” to unlock the poem and an “extra card”. Of course titles in their normal place at the top can do this too – they can be something you return to after reading the poem and can add a layer of meaning or further insight. But I get what she means. It is less intrusive, more of an afterthought. I found myself trying to second-guess her. What would the title for this one be?
In the film Taxi Driver we see the city through a taxi driver’s windscreen.
Indeed much of the film’s power is due to this limited perspective.
Every year I use this as an example even though the students have never
heard of Taxi Driver.
The title for this is ‘Freedom Within Limits’, and I get it – the piece is about the value of writing using some kind of creative constraint, but she’s also making some kind of comment about what it is to teach writing techniques, and perhaps something about how we expect others to understand what we mean, and they sometimes don’t. Cool. But look at this one:
We get a lot of writers in here, said the rollercoaster operator
lowering the bar.
The title is ‘The Rollercoaster Operator’. Not much added there. This ‘piece’ is also part of a running gag about writers, another of these being: “We get a lot of writers in here, said the optician tightening / the screws.” (‘The Optician’). I’m looking for depth here but I think Bergin has given in to the temptation to be funny.
Perhaps these short ‘pieces’ are not, individually, going to yield a great deal of satisfaction, to me anyway. So I need to look to the cumulative effect. Bergin herself has said that she feels that over time the individual fragments sing and talk to each other. After an extended period of time spent with the book, what arises from repeated readings? Well … a flatness of tone emerges, a sense of detachment, a distanced voice. Bergin has spoken about this, saying that the collection came out of a “terrible struggle with voice, a loss of voice … I lost my voice”. She says, “I had ideas. I didn’t know how to speak them.” It was something of a crisis for her. She says she felt as if she were standing on a pier watching a boat leave. “I should have been on it, but I wasn’t. It was the end.” Eventually she allowed herself to go with this feeling, this lack, and this is the book that emerged.
in Savage Tales I can see that Bergin is making interesting points about how art has traditionally been seen as a male preserve, about what it means to be a writer teaching the practice of creative writing, about how our inner worlds clash with external reality, about social misfiring and non-sequiturs and the strangeness of romantic relationships, about the nature of translation and how we all sometimes feel ill-equipped to deal with normal life. Beyond this, she seems to be trying to weave something bigger out of the individual ‘pieces’. But too many of them are throwaway, clichéd, or just plain cheap. For me it breaks the spell.
Like the Tricycle Kid in The Incredibles, I’m waiting for her to do “something amazing, I guess”. Savage Tales isn’t it.
I so wanted to love this collection. I liked Bergin’s debut, This is Yarrow, which picked up both the 2014 Seamus Heaney Award and 2014 Shine / Strong Poetry Award, and I appreciated her second collection, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx, which was shortlisted for both the Forward and T.S. Eliot Prizes. Bergin’s poetry is an odd beast, rarely predictable, often ricocheting off at a tangent. She is intelligent, experimental, playful, and occasionally very dark. Like the Tricycle Kid in The Incredibles, I’m waiting for her to do “something amazing, I guess”. Savage Tales isn’t it.
But I’m not disheartened. Because there are glints of the amazing here. This is ‘The Seasons Dance’ from the ‘Four Dances’ section, inspired by Pina Bausch:
First my right hand opened through my left hand. Then my
right hand touched my forehead. Then my right hand fell
downwards like a leaf. Then I made two fists and held them
up in the air. Now I have lived a whole life.
Somehow Bergin manages to imbue something very simple – a description of movement – with implication, with power, and with grace. How does she do this? Simple language (all but three of her words are monosyllables), an awareness of what happens when you break a line, some gentle echoes – first / fist; leaf / life. But where does she find the resources to make that leap to “Now I have lived a whole life”. Perhaps it’s her preoccupation with distillation that allows her to do this.
Again, at the very end of the collection, in the section called ‘Constructions’, there are some ‘proper’ poems with conventional, authoritative titles at the top, although they all play about with the placement of words on the page – some are centred, some are scattered, one is in the shape of a Christmas tree, and one used justified text. ‘Quartz’, the last poem in the book, is worth the price of the paper (yes, even all that paper) alone.
[…] Say the light dazzles distracts you from your
own complications. Shines or blinds the self out of itself like
cauterising a wound. Say cauterize. Say sear. Say Hot. Iron.
Pleasing for it do be old-fashioned. Today a blood blister.
Tomorrow I eat from your spoon. What next, if we already
share spit and injury? Say Blame. Say Hope. Say it in the cold
dark of day so that your breath crystalises and I can pluck
it and wear it as a Brooch. Say it: No one wears Brooches
This is Bergin doing what she does best, and this is why I’m still here (on my tricycle, watching, waiting). Because she is prepared to take a risk, try something new, and break every convention, and when she does pull it off she produces something amazing.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem. Her first collection, Berg (Seren, 2009), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010. Her second collection is Red Devon (Seren, 2013). Her pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith|Doorstop, 2020), was a winner in The Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019/20. Her most recent pamphlet, Fear of Forks, is out with HappenStance Press.