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BREATH-TAKING: A GEOGRAPHY by Jeffrey Loffman, reviewed by Luigi Marchini

lofIt is rare indeed nowadays to encounter a poetry collection which exudes the traditional values of the art form. This is such a book: it displays an effortless precision of language along with significance, traits which seem to have become increasingly out of fashion, such is the penchant for the new or innovative.

Breath-Taking is a joy to read and whilst Loffman does not attempt anything fancy, there are some poems that required several readings. In these he is more experimental than in the rest of the book whilst still displaying considerable skill and control: I will come to one of these poems – a marvel – a little later. The overriding feeling I have now as I reflect back on the collection is the passion that illuminates each poem. The reader cannot help but be swept along with the sincerity, the conviction displayed.

Aptly titled and subtitled (breath is referenced frequently and the reader is taken on a journey encompassing many places on this world and beyond) the book displays, effortlessly, a full range of poetic techniques. Witness the consonance at the very start of the book:

Moonscapes
i

‘alone
crusty silica seas
around the crescent light above;’

and the personification in the same poem;

iii
‘no laboratory work
discovers the gods’.

The syntax used throughout the book is judged to suit each poems mood admirably, e.g. ‘to ballad’ and the wonderful ‘but sleep comes too early for the impatient’, both found in ‘Moonscapes.’ Or how about the oh-so-right ‘eighty-eight years in her stare’ from ‘Beyond the Wall’?

Although Loffman demonstrates a keen sense of place in his poems, his love of England, his despair for what has become of it, shines through. In ‘Which Eye Sees’ the narrator describes his colleague as enthusing ’For this is Eden, this is England.‘ at the start but by the end after a revealing climb (the poem is a take on an M.R.James story, almost certainly ‘A View From a Hill’ ) the narrator thinks ‘this cannot be England’.

Of course Loffman is not just rooted in his native country – the collection is subtitled ‘A Geography’ after all – and he takes us to Africa, Asia, Europe, detouring to Ancient Greece and even the cosmos. These poems are the most political in the book: the ‘new wailing walls’ of Gaza in ‘Nakbah, Nakbah’, the ‘vacant space’ of Tiananmen Square in ‘I Bow Before You…’. the ‘ barbed bodies’ of ‘Walls May Fall’; the important thing to note though is that he is not didactic. Yes the poems are critical of regimes, of horrific events, but Loffman’s immense skill is that he denounces these subtly, relying on his adroit use of language to underpin his thoughts, his intentions.

This fine collection contains eulogies, ekphrastic poems, interpretations, nature poems as well as very personal pieces and not once did I feel overwhelmed by verbosity or mawkishness. This came as a surprise because when I first received the book there was a great similarity in terms of form and layout; consequently I expected a ‘dense’ read, a ‘bit of a slog’ if you like. Nothing can be further from the truth. Of course the subjects are weighty but Loffman’s touch is light in the right places so each poem is a fluid and engaging read.

There are two highlights for me and I will focus on these now. ‘On Dungeness Beach’ crept up on me almost surreptitiously. To be honest when confronted with a poem about ‘nature’ I have the tendency to grimace, shout in despair and run away. And that is how I approached this poem, with a pre-determined view that I would not like it. Of course, I was greatly mistaken. The poem is nigh on perfect in its use of imagery and hooks the reader from the opening lines:

‘Sixty, or seventy, gulls standing still
meet in complete silence over me,’

Immediately I am reminded of Du Mauriers ‘The Birds’ and a feeling of menace is instilled. Looking at the wording carefully and Loffman’s skill becomes clearer. If it had been a definite number of gulls at the start, sixty say, the certainty in the narrators mind would transmit to the reader. Instead the uncertainty in the narrator sows a seed of doubt in the readers mind, causing an unease that is intensified in the second line where we find all those birds not only silent but standing over the narrator.

Half way through this first stanza, the narrator asks ‘why do they stand so still?’ a question simultaneously repeated silently by this reader. This occurs at the end of the first sentence and earlier Loffman has beautifully detailed the surroundings on the beach with its ‘debris of rubber tubes’, and ‘old net wires’. The stanza gains momentum in the second half with the onomatopoeic ‘rusted rail-tracks’ and the alliteration of ‘with the wind sipping the seas’ And the stanza ends with:

‘Black wings, the gulls hunt parallel
to the surface of the sea, forays
every five minutes.’

The implied doom at the start of the stanza is therefore carried through to the end with the apt syntax used by Loffmann, ‘black’ and ‘hunt’.

In the second stanza the gulls seem to be no longer menacing but, instead, are ‘statues’ acting as

‘a vigil for all the fisherwives
who made fires at four in the morning ‘
and the stanza ends with,
‘or the men who worked the lifeboat
where you’d cling to rigging, to the dead’.

These two extracts demonstrate the beauty and the skill of Loffman’s writing. The ominous imagery of the first stanza is replaced by assertiveness; now the narrator knows why the gulls are still and there is tenderness here: the hunters are now keeping vigil, a salute to the fishermen and wives. The phrasing is lovely-‘who made fires at four in the morning’ is wonderful as is the half rhyme of ‘cling’ and rigging’. Sons and daughters are ‘buried’ and now we are in the reality, the concreteness of life and the allusions of the opening stanza are now fully comprehended.

The final stanza starts with:

‘Two hundred names saved in sixty
years; sixty gulls stand still…’

We surmise that each gull-there are definitely sixty now, not the sixty or seventy of the previous two stanzas-signifies a year in the life of the Dungeness Lifeboat Station and the poem continues to carefully detail life by the sea. It ends powerfully:

‘…we are thrown
by a passing stranger into the water.
into the stone piles, into our past.’

The ‘past’ here, the ‘dead’ at the end of the previous stanza and the black gulls hunting at the end of the opening stanza, Loffman has intricately crafted ‘On Dungeness Beach’ to a naturally satisfying conclusion.

The second poem it is essential to look at is ‘Trying to Find Charles Olson’s House’. This is one of the experimental poems I mentioned at the start but it is only experimental in its length (eight pages) and the loose structure when compared with the rest of the book. It is a tour-de-force of a poem, a work which rewards many readings and, perhaps, deserves to be published on its own. It also deserves an in-depth, detailed review for which we have no time here. But I will do the best I can in the space left.

It reminds me, at times, of ‘The Wasteland’ such is the awe Loffman’s poem has inspired in me. Like Eliot’s masterpiece ‘Olson’ seems to me to go far beyond a concern with modern civilisation and mankind’s place in it. Loffman’s treatment of character is similar to Eliot’s and verbally there are echoes for me. There is extensive use of myth, archetypal patterns, and literary parallels.

Charles Olson, as a poet, championed ‘Projective Verse’ with its emphasis on writing ‘by ear’, ‘breath-conditioned’, and here Loffmann seems to endorse this way of writing. Look at the start for example:

1
‘But where is it? in the space between
ink and vellum, the end of the line
Black Mountain myth Black Mountain Maximus
where the letter, stress and syllable on the page
……….these were my thoughts as i prepared for sleep.’

Here Loffmann demonstrates how he means to continue, with form as an extension of content, in the way Olson championed.
Highlights in this first section include:

‘not an easy journey then,
…………………………………….across
………………………the sea, the restless sea
no turning back’
and:
‘Is this war, is this wisdom? Some say that this
is the human condition’

Wonderful writing and the idea of myth is fully realised at the start.

Loffman’s search for Olsons house is really a metaphor for his admiration for and his exploration of Olson’s work. Therefore he references Moby Dick (‘Call Me Ishmael’ is a famous Olson essay), red wheelbarrows (he was seen as a link between Williams and Stevens, and the New American Poets’, Derrida among others in this first part.

How about this:

‘I wandered; bluebells hazed in their crowd’.

Loffman has succeeded in this poem in giving life to words, to subvert what is expected. it is almost perfect both as a poem and as a homage to Olsen. The ending,

‘the song you sing,
..the beat you played,
the line you made,
….the breath you gave’

beautifully encapsulates this.

Breathtaking is a collection I highly recommend. It is not perfect-what is-as there are some poems that, fine as they are, do not add much to the book- ‘At Branwell’s Dressing Up box’ and ‘There is a Mountain’ work well on their own but seem to be lost here. The best compliment I can pay the book is that once finished for the first time, I picked it up immediately and read it again.

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