Humphrey 'Huck Astley finds Claire Trévien's ingenious work replete with sex, booze and mischief
- Claire Trévien
- (Penned in the Margins)
I have to admit, I groaned a little when I read that Oxford-based poet Claire Trévien's new collection Astéronymes "takes us to a place where ancient stone circles collide with the language of the internet."
The esoteric title, the bang-up-to-date subject matter: it all sounded a bit affectatious. Intriguingly, though, 'astéronyme' turns out to be the French (Trévien is Anglo-Breton) for the sequence of asterisks used to hide all or part of a word, and much of the collection is in fact pleasingly anachronistic, full of photocopies, faxes and mix-tapes. It's really only the book's second half that wears its modernity on its sleeve, and we'll get to that.
The first half opens with The Evening After, a kind of truncated sonnet (a 'sonnette', I suppose) that dispenses with the third quatrain and jumps straight to the punchline of the couplet via an arch jig of half-rhymes. (This seems to exemplify Trévien's take-it-or-leave-it approach to form, whereby rhyme, metre and structure are used as and when they suit her. This suggests that when her verse is free, it is free for a reason.)
The couplet itself is lined with carpet whose smoothness has been 'ruined […] past salvation' by spilt wine. There are boozy moments throughout the book – "streets swimming in wine" around an "alcoholic monument", etc. – that complete a kind of Dionysian trio of motifs along with violence and eroticism.
Don't worry, though – Trévien's handling of these tropes is neither crass nor cliché.
The violence tends to be oblique or mediated by nature/environment: "A pearl / starts with an attack / shattering the shell", lichen is "grated through joints", and "The city shakes my jaw loose".
This is poetry red in tooth and claw (and wine), poetry for readers who aren't afraid to be kicked in the groin between moments of beauty and insight. ("The secret to eternal youth", Trévien tells us, "is to be singular", perhaps referencing Wittgenstein's idea that a person lives forever by living always in the present moment.)
The eroticism, meanwhile, is by turns solicitous and facetious, even eccentric: "I count the spots where suede / puckers, where your mouth's left unzipped"; "I drape / shoddily over you, hands all over the pastries"; "You roll a joint like a tune, light up, shift weight - / your legs open, a smile playing at your lips."
At times it's like foraging in a Ted Hughes landscape and finding a dirty magazine (he probably owned a few): "We come upon it, / smelling like a thousand hands. / I crawl into the well-tongued path."
But what are the poems about? Time with a capital T is an abiding theme (isn't it always?) and produces some of the collection's most interesting, if difficult, ideas: "history, you're slumped waiting for / the grass to dry"; "Ever hairy, yet sewn / shut, that's Time: / a web that yawns."
It would seem that in Trévien's world, Time is very much a thing. (Space-time itself, by the way, is thought to be an actual substance, and "a web that yawns" is a pretty good description of the Universe's galactic super-structure – remember this the next time someone tries telling you poetic language makes no sense.)
In this context, one sees how alcohol and sex are temporary stays against Time's process (we've been asking Eros to plead our case to Thanatos for millennia, after all), while violence is just one of the weapons in the arsenal of Time's twin, Entropy. But where do the stone circles fit into all this? What's interesting about them, I suppose, is that they stand in defiance of Time but also in testimony to it. An obelisk is a potentially eternal marker placed in the earth by human beings – that's profound, but it's cold comfort to flesh and blood.
Trévien's reflections on the stone circles crystallise (or indeed mineralise) in the Arran Sequence, which closes the book's earthy first half and divides it from the more avant-garde second. Here she plays archaeologist cataloguing the stones of Arran and their surrounds, and the results are some of the collection's most striking words and images. The Doon, for example, has brilliant Matissean flourishes: "The sea piles up a collection of marbles: / brain-tinted, a galaxy of mica, yellow- / blooded logs, veined crusts."
If you don't feel the urge to read those lines over and over again, well, you should probably go back and read them again.
The speaker is not entirely in thrall to the island, however, admitting in Goatfell that "My shoes have little skill, / goofing off boulders bashed with sky-sweat" before asking us to "Fedex me your largest and finest hull" so she can bugger off back home.
Meanwhile, in The King's Cave, mischievous line-breaks flit about in the half-dark: "this church demands quiet / catcalls of wonder"; "What a dive / this is into a site of / carved myth". It is this capacity for bathos and surprise that saves some of the material from being merely stylish or clever – but not all of it. With Arran out of the way, Trévien moves on to some very different landscapes: the digital.
A piece like Azahara , which Trévien's notes explain is "a fictitious Wikipedia deletion thread for a real person", is not poetry as far as I'm concerned, and the same goes for Index in Progress and Print of Two Women in a Bar, though the latter is arguably a prose-poem.
Experimentation is always necessary, however, otherwise we wouldn't get a successful novelty like the collection's title-piece, which has something in common with the polyphonics of recent T. S. Eliot Prize-winner Sarah Howe. Similarly, Guidebook resembles one of Hannah Lowe's ingenious compound diptychs, wherein two voices or narratives are placed (literally) side-by-side, each one tempering the other. Again, much potential for bathos and surprise.
This kind of coexistence – specifically the coexistence of past and present – is really at the heart of Astéronymes. Sometimes the relationship is problematic ("history is an out of sync 'we'") but other times it's intriguing and ripe for irony, as in the piece on Richard III's recent exhuming from under a car park: "Still, the effect is like knocked / glass to see a play excavated, / pantomime reassembled in bones // emerging / where a crossroad / of cackling tires now ghosts."
I asked Trvien whether this past-present concern might be symptomatic of living in Oxford, where history is very much the currency of the town, but her perspective's broader than that.
"I have always loved looking at places as if they were palimpsests," she explains.
"You wonder what layer was there before, what encounters occurred, which relationships dissolved, and so forth."
And, as in her poetry, the dynamic is as fraught as it is fascinating: "How does one make sense of the present, really? I think it's dangerous to think of the past as something remote, that happened to someone else – we're absolutely terrible at learning from it for that reason."
There's much more one could say about Astéronymes – the haunting Museum series of poems, for example, is scattered throughout the collection like the scraps of some apocryphal encyclopedia – but it's hard to cover a work that's so high in content and so highly-wrought in form.
Some of it will feel like filler if, like me, you are wary of experiment for experiment's sake, and there's little in the way of the emotional intimacy Trévien let breathe in her 2013 debut The Shipwrecked House, so don't come to Astéronymes for a shoulder to cry on
But it is intelligent, entertaining and, as Ruth Padel has commented, "beautifully curious".
We should all look forward to where Trévien takes us next with her 'language defined / by joints forced into new frontiers.'
* Humphrey 'Huck' Astley is a poet and musician based in Oxford humphreyastley.co.uk