Want to keep up to date with poetry translation news? Sign up to our infrequent email newsletter
Over 40 years
at the cutting edge
of poetry publishing
[Twitter] [rss feed] [Facebook]

Review: Ai! Ai! Pianissimo, by Astrid Alben

from the article Making Things Better

If you are a person who likes his poems to mean something easily recognisable, to tell you a story straight, don't buy Ai! Ai! Pianissimo. It's not for those who like a poem to 'have a message'. On the other hand, if you enjoy a mystery tour or a poetic roller-coaster - or if you are alert to the dangerous vitality of words - this is certainly for you. Ai! Ai! Pianissimo will ask you to read words freshly and bravely and to stride with courage and fear across the gaps - and the gaps, of course, are where poetry works.

It's a first collection, by an Anglo-Dutch poet who was educated in Edinburgh. She shows a fine contempt for the triviality of meaning; among other things, she is fascinated by time. She takes no prisoners. She throws words at you, gives them freedom to take effect; she yokes together apparently heterogeneous images; she startles, alerts, attacks, leaves space and air and offers amazing sudden perspectives, such as you're unlikely to have come across in poetry before. This is disconcerting. But it's hugely exhilarating, because it asks you to read with a different part of your mind, with open eyes and nimble apprehension, a balancing act of celebration and paradox. Images says Jane Draycott on the cover, pass and move on, voices cut in, the observed world echoes and strobes.

She writes about love, of course, among other things. Rather than escape into abstractions and generalities, it's more useful to you, reader, if I quote a couple of short Alben poems, just to show you what I mean. Here is Tongue and Groove:

Or when their arms
their legs their hands
their clumps of feet
entangled
and she asks
which oiie of them belongs to
her arid he murmurs
Be patient.

- and yes: you do know 'what's it's about', but you know it like a shiver in the spine, like an echo after music stops. This is poetry you read with your feet off the ground, ready to understand it but unable to reduce it to prose: which is what poetry, after all, is. If you can say what poems say in prose, you don't need a poem. But most important things that poetry says can't be translated into prose. And this is what Alben invites us to know, through her sudden unexpected shifts of language and tone, her surprising information,
which comes through astonishing coincidences and fractures.

To help you get your balance, to get used to the movement of this poetry, here is another love-poem, an early stage in the relationship: One Moon-shaped Cake:

Take one take one. Have some.
The half-light half-dark
half convincing half everything.

em>Yes she says one of the few times
yes she says yes. So that's how.
They circumnavigate each other in sidestrokes.

Or much like a dog chasing its tail in the park.
Or how shadows fall in front on any given bike-ride.
fingers flutter then blend with the surface of getting to know.

After all
it's only one moon-shaped cake.
That's how.

Well, you can talk about urgency, embarrassment, etc. But the poem encompasses all of the shifting currents of an intensely significant moment in a few economical notes, leaves you breathless with the suppressed energy of it. Alben is a new and original voice in English poetry, serious and uncompromising. I look forward to how her work may develop and how it may influence the way in which poetry is written in future.