Sunday, July 7, 2024

Cary Fagan reviews Lydia Unsworth's These Steady Bulbs (2024) at Word Music

Toronto writer (and above/ground press author) Cary Fagan was good enough to provide the first review for Lydia Unsworth's These Steady Bulbs (2024) over at his Word Music blog. Thanks so much! You can read the original post here.
When I was a kid, so long ago now, we played unsupervised from evening into dark. We hid in back yards, ran from garden to garden, picked up fallen pears from a neighbour’s tree and hurled them at the rare passing car. That time came back to me as I read These Steady Bulbs, a text that both offers and withholds meaning–somewhat in the manner of childhood itself.

The English poet Lydia Unsworth (above/ground is a rare Canadian chapbook press to have an international list of authors) has an interesting premise here. Her book, as she explains in a note, is a response to Ian Waite’s Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time, which I gather is a sociological/cultural study of British subsidized housing. She tells us that “the concerns and nostalgia are in part abstracted,” although I admit to being uncertain as to what exactly this means. The sequence of prose poemns is presented as a looking backwards into childhood, as a visit to places once intimately known, as an attempt to find and understand the past. It is certainly nostalgic, if not warmly so. It is as much exhumation as recollection.

Can anyone else see these streets, their buried gods, the blood from our shins like shadows in gravel, these graves?

Somewhere out-of-focus were the adults, uninterested in such spaces as the empty lot that drew them:

And the adults, they didn’t disobey the signage or peek over walls designed expressly to keep them out. Nothing for them to see but their imagination, creased and left to rot. Wild fear, rumour, grey flowing capes half-seen and blinked away. We lied and camped wherever it looked soft enough. Metal bridges, leftover streams, fat wet furniture, mossy and bright. We wanted rain in our shoes, we wanted to smell damp like the soil of the planet.

This is rather overwrought language, appropriate for an adult reliving the intensity of collective childhood experience. These were places were the dangers were felt, if vague and unnamed, making them all the more exciting. When the poet says “We didn’t want to go home (we never wanted to go home)” it isn’t hard to wonder whether home is now, for the adult looking back, a place that simply can’t be entered anymore.

The voice of these poems is oddly passionate and alienated at the same time. It isn’t always easy to say why one sentences follows another. Near the end we are told that “Everything is here for the taking” but this feels more like a past, a memory, a fiction that has us in its grip whether we like it or not.

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