Stephen Payne reviews Speechless at Inch by James Caruth (Smith|Doorstop, 2021)
Perhaps the template for most contemporary poems is the anecdote. But not so for James Caruth, whose template is instead the scene. The poet watches and listens to situations that move him and records the provoking or associated sensory features. If the elements of story appear, they are sketched more faintly – in some lead-in to the described scene or follow-on from it.
I was rather pleased with myself for reaching this characterisation (despite its inevitable risk of overgeneralisation), until I came to page 51 and found a version of it in the poet’s own words in the title poem, ‘Speechless at Inch’, which, I believe, acts as a manifesto.
The title places us in County Wexford, and the first stanza describes the place:
Late in the year,
the tourists have gone.
the sky burning over Slieve Mish.
The second stanza moves us inside the poet’s mind, making good on the first word of the title:
How long have I stood
listening to a redshank
in conversation with the sea
And the final isolated line reveals his agenda:
I would make a language out of this.
I figure ‘Speechless at Inch’ is characteristic, also, in that its mood is somewhat indistinct. The narrator’s consciousness is heightened, although from what precise cause and in what precise manner remain unclear: unspoken, I suppose. Consider the first poem, ‘North’, in which “On a day when the earth seemed / out of kilter”, the author and his companion(s) “pointed the old Ford / resolutely into the north”. Through the car’s opened windows, he observes a heron, and geese “feeding in the shallows”, before drawing his comparison between observer and setting: “All of us pulled to a single star”. A memory, then, of a long journey, perhaps a long journey home, or away from home, and made for reasons that cannot be completely grasped or acknowledged, or anyway are not explicitly disclosed to the reader.
The reader is drawn gently into the scene, feeling empathetic with the narrator, feeling interested in him, even before knowing what it is in his circumstances that might be affecting
In some poems, an undercurrent of loss and grief gives a more obviously dark colour to the mood, which nevertheless remains hinted at rather than confronted: crystal clear details, but mysterious contexts or rationales. Many poems mention their particular geographical location (almost a third of the poems have a place name in their title) and sketch its physical characteristics while hinting obliquely at its significance.
Thus, in ‘Lagán’: “I loved the river’s middle reaches, / willow and rushes, / long strands of maidenhair, / clearings where I knelt in grass / wet with dew …” And in ‘Coast Road, North Antrim’: “It holds a narrow course / between abrupt hills and the sea,” before the description turns to psychology: “This shore, the edge of all we know. / Beyond the horizon we are strangers / guarding our small square of earth”. A lot might be read into such lines; there is plenty of room for the reader’s own response.
In terms of form, I think the quoted extracts above are illustrative. Lines are irregular in length, but mostly shorter than pentameter. Line-breaks are typically at phrase boundaries. Stanzas are thematic units and almost always end-stopped (hooray!), often comprising an irregular number of lines. Rather free free-verse, then, and in well-punctuated, well-written sentences. All of which contributes to a welcoming calm and clarity, a kind of simplicity.
How does a poem of this sort work, without the most tangible aspects of ‘form’, without much in the way of narrative? In the case of Caruth’s poems, anyway, it works by the easy accumulation of details, so that the reader is drawn gently into the scene, feeling empathetic with the narrator, feeling interested in him, even before knowing what it is in his circumstances that might be affecting. The physical setting has to do the work of shading the reader’s mood, so that inferences about the human experience are at least partly guided. I’m mostly pretty confident, as I read, that I’m in tune with the author’s emotions, although I can’t be sure. That I’m confident is, I think, a tribute to the management of tone, not only the choice of details, but the particular expressions with which these are mentioned: those “long strands of maidenhair”, those “abrupt hills”. There’s nothing flamboyant or pretentious or ironic here, everything is sincere.
There’s nothing flamboyant or pretentious or ironic here, everything is sincere
In several respects, then, the poems of Speechless at Inch are, it seems to me, similar to some classic Chinese poetry. That this might indeed be one of Caruth’s influences is hinted at by two appealing poems that mention Li Po. In the first of these, ‘From the Chinese’, Caruth reports how Li Po “listens for intonations, / a different music / in a breeze”. This is a good metaphor for Caruth’s own aesthetic.
Speechless at Inch is a book to enjoy and to reflect on during a long, quiet evening. Perhaps, if it suits your taste, in the kind of setting in which some of these poems were drafted, John Coltrane in the background, a glass of wine within reach. Brooding in the still night. Drinking alone by moonlight.
Stephen Payne is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath, where until September 2020 he taught and conducted research in Cognitive Science. He lives in Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan. His first full-length poetry collection, Pattern Beyond Chance, was published by HappenStance Press in 2015 and shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year. His second collection, The Windmill Proof, was published in September 2021 and his pamphlet, The Wax Argument, was published in February this year, both from HappenStance Press.