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Review: Ai! Ai! Pianissimo, by Astrid Alben

Astrid Alben's trajectories have both a surreal and slightly staccato feel, as the book's title Ai! Ai! Pianissimo might indicate. The titles of individual poems are also quirky and individual: What had made her laugh out loud; [The fruit having] a groove down one side; The tickets to the places. The poems themselves can sometimes seem built in ways which might seem aleatory or improvised. In the opening poem, The Saddest Tree at Kew, Alben writes

Paranoids are the only ones to make sense of anything,
connecting everything, and although that may not be
flowers, it will be something, just a like a sign
is a another way of holding one's breath.

Alben's statement appears to eschew 'sense' in poetry as one eschews sense in 'anything'. But Alben has a drive to write and assemble poems, so she herself, must submit to forces of continuity that draws the lines down the page. Those lines are then shaped by Alben herself. So, it maybe that the paranoid are not the only ones who can connect everything with everything. And underneath such seeming improvisation, there is an emotional trajectory to these pieces that is often beguiling and adroitly made; Alben certainly can manage and shape poems.

And, for all her disavowals of meaning, Alben's writing is often tender and empathetic. There is much warmth in this book. In Mental or Rental

We can tell she reads him
like she would the article on hydrocephalus:
one paragraph at a time.

And each time she wants to return this book
to the library a voice leaps off the page
I've not finished it says

That easy image of reading someone like a book, is turned on itself by Alben in a way that makes it loving and generous. Though we could be rather literal in all this and ask how else one reads a book, if not one paragraph at a time.

Whilst some of the writing does seem a kind of bricolage, as I've tried to indicate there is a powerful strand of lyricism which binds and holds the imagery. In Scene III, Alben writes

And when he's gone finally finally

she unpeels her fists
smooth as milk
light floods the room.

(the curtains are indigo blue and let the sky through)

When she fell asleep it was noon.
While the room/the room carries on.

There is a keen emotional truth in such writing that is not only convincing but very evocative. Not only is the room realised in the reader's mind, but the woman is too. Such writing shows Alben has a real gift for the kind of oblique narrative that is involving and emotionally satisfying.