08 March 2008

Recent poetry reading part II: The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter

This post is a little belated – I mostly wrote it a few weeks ago before going on holiday, but it didn’t quite make it out of the notebook and into the blog.

So anyway, not too long ago I read The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter (who I often confuse with Dorothy Parker, about whom I’ve recently read a very interesting and kind of depressing biography).

The Monkey’s Mask is, as they say in Australia, a ‘verse novel’. In 2001 I was a guest at the Subverse poetry festival in Brisbane, and I got the impression that a verse novel had become an essential stage in the development of a poet: after one-to-two poetry collections it’s time for your verse novel. All the poets seemed to have written one, be writing one, or intending to write one.

The blurb on the cover says:

You will encounter things that you never expected to find in a poem – a missing person enquiry, a tough streetwise P.I. named Jill Fitzpatrick, cars that go out of control on mountain roads, murder, deception and an unforgettable femme fatale. You will find yourself reading the crime thriller of the year.
Sound tacky? To be honest, it kinda is. The fast pace pulled me through the 256 page book pretty swiftly, but at the end I felt kind of cheated. The story seemed clichéd and predictable, and I don’t even read crime fiction. I picked the killer pretty early on, because he was the nicest guy in the whole book. I hoped that, because she's a poet and poets are pretty smart, she was leading me down a path and she’d surprise me at the end. But no.

I’m really interested in narrative poetry – the beautiful, spare but rich way that poems can tell stories. Over the last few years my poetry has tended towards the narrative. My next collection, My Iron Spine (which will be published later this year – watch this space), is mainly narrative poetry: biographical and autobiographical. I’ve even been considering joining the Aussies and writing my long-talked-about (by me that is) novel Cartography as a 'verse novel'.

The thing about poetry that makes it poetry, for me anyway, is the intensity of language. But, while being written as poetry (a series of shortish poems- 1–2 pages each) gave the narrative of The Monkey’s Mask a nice stripped-backness, I found the poetry pretty bland. I recall noticing some nice images on my way through, but flicking through it now, I can’t find them, so you’ll have to just believe me.

I think Dorothy Porter is a really good poet– I’ve read some of her other work and really liked it, so I had high hopes for The Monkey’s Mask. But I guess my main feeling after reading it was that if someone had submitted it to me for publication, I would have said that it’s a really cool idea, and definitely worth pursuing, but that the poetry could do with some more work and the cliche's 'reconsidered'.

But what would I know! – it won the Age Book of the Year for Poetry, the National Book Council Award for Poetry and the Braille Book of the Year. (It’s also been adapted for stage and radio and film.)

Has anyone else read it? What did you think? Anyone else read any verse novels?


hix said...

I read it many years ago, and remember being pleasantly engaged by it. It was a fast read for me too. as a crime story, I enjoyed its sensuality and sparse style (which was, perhaps, me just buzzing out at coming across a poetic novel for the first time).

I watched the movie at its market premiere at Cannes. It did not increase the jaded buyers of movies & film festival programmers from what I could tell. as a film, I found a little bland, predictable, and not-special.

Anonymous said...

Porter's book has sold 50,000 copies. Go figure.

Helen Rickerby said...

Oh absolutely! It's been very popular and much loved. Probably I'm just missing something, though I often find people have very different taste in poetry.

I favour of it though, I found, via someone else's comment, one of the nice images:

In love I’ve got no style

my heart is decked out
in bright pink tracksuit pants

it weaves its huge bummed way
through the tables to Diana

Sonia said...

I read a different Dorothy Porter book a while ago (something about planets and lesbians and cancer? Wild Surmise, that's it, from 'On First Looking Into Chapmans Homer') and had a similar reaction.

Anna Jackson, who lent me that book, is of the same mind.

I really liked Vikram Seth's verse novel/novella/whatever-it's-called The Golden Gate, which is also a pacy read with a deliberately soap-opera-y plot, but is also technically brilliant. That was more a rhyme and meter brilliance, rather than an imagistically based one though.

Helen Rickerby said...

Hi Sonia! Thanks for your comment.

I haven't read The Golden Gate, though have heard that it's good. Ought to.

The other 'verse novel' I've read, that I can think of right now, is 'Autobiography of Red' by Anne Carson. I read it a few years ago, and liked it, but not as much as 'The Glass Essay', a long narrative poem from her first book.

Michael J. Farrand said...

Thought you might appreciate a set of contemporary narrative poems. Enjoyed your article very much.