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Review: The Yellow Buoy, by C. K. Stead

I enjoyed this book immensely.

It's the work of a highly cultured novelist, poet and literary critic, so not surprisingly there are many poems about writers or about places and people on the international literary circuit, as well as translations or adaptations of pieces by Catullus, Montale and Jaccottet. At the same time, it's immensely grounded.

A fundamental motive of Stead's writing appears in the title of "Stay Alert". In this, the poet's companion is startled by an unexpected intensity of blue striking her peripheral vision, asks what it is, then laughs, realising it's just the sky seen through leaves after rain. Stead remarks, "There it goes, / the poetic moment / so easily missed, / so quickly lost." Similarly, "Why Poetry?" suggests that the point of poetry is to express, see, feel and become different beauties, powers, and lives outside yourself, those of a cat, a heron, Hamlet, or fish in a stream seen long ago. This is writing that makes you more alive to the world, and one of the main ways it does so is through a brilliant use of imagist techniques to capture transient perceptions, whether by creating an impression of the moment in which something strikes the consciousness, or to evoke creatures in movement. There's none of the dogmatic narrowness of classical Imagism though. Stead isn't afraid to interweave description with comment, or even to use the pathetic fallacy. He does so in "When I Touched Your Wrist", describing how a tender memory came back to him

as the solution to a puzzle
to one who has slept
or as the sun comes

to the sea at Zadar
taking it by surprise.

Because his style is so bare and clear in other ways, the device comes across here as a freshly minted, living metaphor. He uses it to more complicated effect in this section of a witty and enchanting little poem about trying to pronounce the Italian words for pork and honey:

'Maiale', I say
and then 'miele',
speaking with care
while the sun writes on the sea
a script of its own devising
and among the rocks
the sea
makes light of it.

This tiny moment resonates with a sense of man's cosmic insignificance, and at the same time sparkles with delight in the play of mind. Linguistic transparency gives clarity and force to the punning of "makes light of it", but the force is delicately applied, the resonances are subtle, and Stead leaves it open to us to read the poem as we will. I find humorous self-deprecation in the contrast between the tiny labour of the poet and the vast effortless spontaneity of nature, a hint of wryness at the sense that all our efforts will ultimately come to nothing, but above all a joy in the moment made radiant by the last line...

Read the rest of the Review on Edmund Prestwich's website