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Review: Fifty-six, by George Szirtes and Carol Watts

To attempt any summing up of the themes of Fifty-Six [...] I would gesture towards the themes by mentioning such things as the emergence of language, both historically and individually, the negotiation between language and world, the relationship of the visual and the verbal, the human survival of damage and wounding, perception and imperceptions, a kind of conscious self-reflexive thinking about how one thinks in words (and outside words, perhaps). My preliminary understanding doesn't seem too far off-beam if one grants credence to what the two poets say of the completed sequence; "The whole is about loving language and things equally, almost interchangeably. There is childhood, fragility, sleep and waking in it, the turn of a year. And a thread throughout, of a child coming to language in a damaged world". Long before one begins to distinguish such themes, the reading of this sequence offers many 'local' pleasures in watching (and hearing) one poet react to the words of the other. So, when, in poem 3, still thinking of one of Saville's extraordinary portrait heads, Carol Watts writes these lines:

Her face can't escape it, eyes
water, though skin resolves to the right.
Becomes colour of paper, blanched free to.
Compromise ...
Why is she of consequence
to this older gaze & its dehiscence

George Szirtes, in his poem written in response, immediately picks up on the striking word that closes that passage:

All else is translation. Thus and thus and thus.
Dustings. Korpa. Dead skin. Dehiscence.
The his-sense. It is the breaking
down into phonemes of colour
spectra, specked Ra, specked tra-la ...

Metaphors and strategies initiated by one poet are developed by both as, for example, in the way in which poems 11-16 interweave reiterated images of swimming, bird song, quotations from Chaucer's Parliament of Fowles, fish and the movements of the sea, like two improvising musicians listening to one another and commenting on / editing / recycling one another's ideas. There is much that is relatively obscure in Fifty-Six, but also much that is striking, beautiful and thought-provoking.