Each part of this collection is bracketed by an enlarged list of definitions of words like ‘breaker’, ‘capillary wave’, ‘erosion’, and of course ‘littoral’. By providing these precise definitions of a vocabulary that she will draw on and analyse in her poems, Patricia Debney suggests that the experience of what they convey is ultimately more gestural, and that, contrary to the dictionary, firm definitions are often impossible. Definitions never stay in one place; they can shift, like an eroding coastline.
It’s this duet between precision and unreliability that gives the prose poems in ‘Littoral’ their tension, and for the most part Debney’s approach works well. The first sections are dominated by the elements, by wind and water, and by our mistaken assurance that landscape exists for our own appreciation. ‘This is not about you,’ we are told in ‘Outshore Wind.’ ‘This blows a wind past you that was going to blow anyway.’ Here, the world shifts and alters to the priorities of invisible rhythms, and a feature of the collection as a whole is the acknowledgement that much of the geological facts remain a source of mystery or indifference to the layman. ‘So much comes down to physics,’ she writes in ‘Hindsight’. ‘Of course, there are equations for all this … /But you don’t think to ask.’
At the same time, landscape helps to fix significant moments in our lives, from the birth of children to the deaths of parents, and these moments of human frailty are almost underlined by such mute and unfeeling processes. ‘Cleaving’, without sentiment, charts the gathering sense of loss that comes with having a child, the willed obsolescence of the parent and the intimation that this is ‘Nothing to do with you. Or me.’ Following these recollections is a series of poems on coastlines in the United States, remembered from trips and holidays over the last thirty years, and the way memory can cancel the sense of distance. By the end of the collection the elements have begun to cohere, with a final cautious gesture made in ‘This Time Tomorrow’ towards a possible future.
In prose poetry, standard form is abandoned or found insufficient for a sense of cascading impression, and these poems certainly give a blustery sense of the elements advancing and retreating, hesitantly and furiously. The language tends to the plain and direct, and in a tone suited to the notion of hard-won, tempered experience. There is no need for histrionics, because the worst has already happened, and in the face of the indifferent winds it has been accepted. Occasionally though, the poems don’t seem to earn their form, and rather than conveying a sense of flow, of image engendering image, they can come across as notation or simple observation. There is much to enjoy here, especially the feeling of language capturing the shifts in landscape as it happens, but perhaps in the face of these shifts Debney could have striven just that little bit harder for something more eternal.
(Shearsman Books, 70pp, 9781848612938)