Cinnamon Press 2007
This admirable collection of poems is steeped in history, with a strong anti-war theme highlighted by persona poems, sometimes in diary form - as in "Ground Zero", where romantic poetic expression combines with desolation of human experiences of war,
... shadows, vapour where they stood, the thin
scrawl of their humanity across ransacked stars.
This early part of the collection reveals a journey across war zones, time, and space. Pollock uses dramatic monologue for a strong emotional impact.
I am crawling through sirens
Through spatter of people
His journey takes us back in time, into the lives of Yeats, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, Shelley, and John Clare. He empathises with these through letters and reminiscences, often in role exercising that poetic faculty that Keats talks about in his letters: Negative Capability.
There are a few more intimate poems showing a sensuality in his work, for example in "Yellow",
...the way she smoothed first one hand
past her dip of waist, then with the other wiped
a sweat bead slow along her throat,
deep into the damp, loose yellow of her dress.
The third section of the book, "Resurrection Suite", is an interpretive translation of Lyubov Sirota's poetry... recounting, first hand, the events at Chernobyl on 26 April, 1986. It's written partly as a report of the tragedy, but breaks into poetry of absolute poignancy, as,
Our deaths, of course, annoyed them, our lives
described as reckless and extreme, a natural by-product
of error, in fatal repetition.
("Resurrection Suite, 2 ")
© 2006 Robert Cole, for Chimera
Another collection from Pollock reinforces past review evidence of the power of his poetry, still coming after the marathon Blackwater Quartet two years earlier. Of more modest length, this collection is sectioned into (I) "Studies in Caesura", (II) "An Almanac of Deeper Dreams", and (III) "Resurrection Suite".
Pollock is no fun read. Lack of humour touched with pessimism pervades, which perhaps adds to line strength and the message that he is not playing around. Indeed, the messages of some of his subjects are vitally serious to future generations. The first section starts grimly with "A Forward Position",
A man whose children were dead, said
this country's a puppet with cut strings
followed by "Ground Zero", depicting the horrors of 9/11, and "Last Days of Ishmael", previously published re the story of Ahab and the whale, which reads as the memory of Ishmael, of Ahab being dragged down to whale-doom.
...the scald-pot seas
red as a cut heart, that day... a shadow
spooling fathoms, surfacing through iron spears,
its white flukes trimmed to sounding cold
for Ahab: his last breath, salt... salt, swallowed
deep enough to make a ghost.
The "Caesura" section also accomodates a variety of approaches in poems, including "On Grafton Street", a Dublin episode of a visit to Yeats long before Pollock; and "Grendal and the Slayer", the tale of Beowulf's heroism. From the latter, ending:
Blood washes the world.
The poem that told it slips from the harp
and scurries, rat-like through rotten straw.
In the hall, in high rafters, a pet hawk, stirring,
keens its yellow eye.
Pollock's narrative skills are fine. However, it's a termination, of Grendal, like Ahab, or the horrific losses in "Ground Zero" - hardly even a figurative caesura in time and space, unless I have missed a point the poet wishes to make.
The biographical nature of "An Almanac of Deeper Dreams" allows some poems to cluster and reinforce the section better. The note is lighter, the technical skill much in evidence, perhaps more telling when the cut-off to death is in memory. From "A Month in the Country":
Seasons are lent, a month in mind restored
in a dynamic of memory.
The trellis of roses
sheltered the view to the cemetary lane.
Climbing through another summmer,
those bright reds were Mother's favourites, their scent fresh
still, as here, circling and circling, this hallmark binding flesh.
"Resurrection Suite", in three sections, is Pollock's adapted version of the story of the Chernobyl disaster from the translation of the work of Lyubov Sirota, published in the late 1980s, she herself suffering, with her son. from radiation exposure. Pollock narrates it in-between the italised poetry, filling us in with the horrors, and the errors made, leading to the worst global disaster and total abandonment of [the city of] Pripyat and its surrounds. Re the poetry and narration, how much is literal Sirota and how much Pollock does not really matter, as the intention (I hope) is to remind and stir a future audience. There's a need to read this version of Pollock - more important than a desire to read,
A gamma burst whitens flowers,
a mystery brightness surrounding
in quiet lanes.
The gag of fruit
ripens too early, plump poisons.
to send us to the wards.
Most poems exhibit the same forceful imagery. The only quarrel appears in the logistics of placing poems to fit section 1.
© 2007 Eric Ratcliffe, for New Hope International
I could tell, about three poems into Estill Pollock's collection, that there were going to be two ways of looking at the task ahead - either the other three books I'd received were going to have difficulty living up to the standard of the first, or, more hopefully, I'd been sent four brilliant books to review, and this was only the first taste of more to come.
Mind you, it didn't stop there. By about five poems in I was becoming more and more over-awed by the quality of this work, to the point that I'm sure I remember myself muttering something into my cup about it being the kind of poetry that makes me want to give up writing. However, that would be to admit having wasted the past twenty-five years in the pursuit of personal literary accomplishment; I was forced to retract my mutterings for fear of the truth.
I suppose the point I'm trying too make by all this preamble is that, if you're the kind of saddo who's only going to buy one poetry book this year, Available Light should be it.
Not only are Pollock's craftsmanship and diction stunning, but these poems simply ooze with an authoritative confidence that encompasses place, history, the moment and narrative drama, with such apparent ease as to draw you in to wallow in the richness of detailed imaginings and realities. Content ranges from Chernobyl to Hiroshima, from war zones to meetings with the good and great of classic literature; from South American conquest to North Amercian upbringing - and all within the space of some sixty-six pages.
Often, there's a raw intensity that serves to mirror a writer who actually cares about his subject matter. The empathy is tangible and contagious. For example, Pollock, in "Ground Zero", talks of
a child running, running,
face sliding down the jut of jawbone, the drip of fingertips
on the burning road,
from high, silver distance, a city sighted,
the crosshair the bridge and river made
marking blast ratios,
shadows, vapour where they stood, the thin
scrawl of their humanity across ransacked stars.
This raw intensity is brought to its climax towards the end of the collection with "Resurrection Suite", which is described as a 'version rather than translation' of the poems in Burden of Lyubov Sirota, published in Kiev in the late 80s. She saw and suffered, first hand, the immediate and long term effects of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, having witnessed the explosion from the open window of her house in Pripyat, about 1.5 km from the scene.
"Resurrection Suite" takes us through the chronology of the generalised negligence and procedural indifference surrounding the initial meltdown, to the organisational incompetence and technical ignorance of the emmergency response, then on to the official denials and unscrupulous whitewashing in its aftermath, alternating between highly technical detail and the bitter voice of human tragedy.
In the inventory of deaths, our names
are missing, and the grief of mourners
is saved for others.
The wreath never laid, the music never played...
that hides itself in chromosomes
lingers too in the party line, its sly dismissal of our lives
to lesser maladies.
The bureaucrats on long lunches
took steps, because of us they weighed
the advantages, trading us in kind.
Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. There are lighter moments. Yet, throughout the book, Pollock consistently maintains a level of quality that is both intelligent and absorbing. If poetry is about making every word count, then Available Light has to be one of the best examples in recent years.
© 2007 John Mingay, for Stride
There's certainly nothing sentimental about Estill Pollock's Available Light. What light there is, is most often nuclear. These are tough poems that take you head-on into the dangerous dimensions of human experience. Even the poems about childhood and family don't suggest any rosy view of the truth. Pollock's Kentucky country doctor grandfather calls cancer by name, and
knelt in autumn fields
to saw the leg the thresher
only half took.
("A Month in the Country")
The "trellis of roses", when (rarely) there are any roses in his poems, serves to shelter "the view to the cemetary lane"; life is "this slow decay/ to probate and dementia". In his loneliness when his father died, he sits at his writing-desk in the cold room, his "careful poems set-out", looking across the winter landscape. But despite the sad tone, there is a strong lyricism in Pollock's writing that sets its own beauty against the stark realities:
Thinking back, it was the stillness I remember -
at that time of year, at that hour
of the afternoon, the dark coming early, the owl's flight
finishing with a kill.
The opening group of poems deals with situations where life breaks, in one way or another. The commonplace and the terrible co-exist. In a war zone, a group of refugees is huddled round a casualty:
... one of them asked
did we know how far the fighting was, another
asked the time.
Pathos and horror, similarly, underlie the deadened emotions of the soldiers who encunter a woman:
...she said, I want to see a doctor.
The day was an oven, but orders were orders,
and we moved on.
Later... somebody thought maybe
we should have got the kid off her.
("A Forward Position")
Little is said, much suggested. "Ground Zero" was the name given to the place where the first atomic bomb fell, on Hiroshima, in 1945; fifty-odd years later, another devastation severed past from future, "people impossibly flying, arms and legs out-stretched" from the twin towers of the World Trade Center. And other times, other places, other life-shattering incidents.
But Pollock can play a different tune. there's also a series of imaginary vignettes, featuring Shelley, Clare, Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc. A letter from Charles Lamb reflects on the dead Romantics, and there's a gothic tale of disinterring Milton.
The collection ends with a striking sequence, "Resurrection Suite", a re-working of the Russian Lyobov Sirota's poetic account of the disaster at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986, and of its terrible lasting consequences. Hesitant yet powerful, almost inarticulate in their dreadful urgency, these three pieces are a distillation of nightmare.
A challenging collection, wide-ranging in time and space, uncompromising in its poetic honesty, Available Light should find a place on the shelves of all who consider the question of humanity in the C21.
© 2007 R.V. Bailey, for Envoi
Pollock, an American who's lived in England for the past twenty-seven years, often writes referentially complex poems that seem to move in multiple directions at once (For a brilliant explication of Pollock's "Preludes for Prepared Piano", see the review from the journal Fine Madness).
In "Curves of Pursuit", Pollock speaks of how he read Edgar Rice Burroughs while he recovered in the hospital ward, dwells on the clinic's displays of an old Dr Guerrant's work among the Plains Indians, and shifts to the Mars Rover landing he saw on television....he imagines our language off the planet, but with different effects.
Before we came, we invented this place,
made weather-models binding hemispheres,
synapse pixels mapping seas
fused glassy by magma burst
... Mariner... Viking...
announcing dust and blister skies, moons named fear and panic
from the Greek- and became ourselves, the way a name
beyond the sunburst launch and hieroglyph of rocket trails,
Mars in its ceremonies, its long ellipse
of fire and ice
around a farther, fainter sun...
© 2008 Ludwig Richter, excerpt, WordPress