The Address Book: Poems

by Steven Heighton
ISBN: 088784698X

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A Review of: The Address Book
by Richard Carter

Nowhere is Heighton's taste for the sonorous smack of words more obvious than in the final section of his The Address Book, called "Fifteen approximations", which contains a marvellous array of translations from such poets as Arthur Rimbaud, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sappho and Horace. I have no way of properly judging these poems as translations-my French is poor, and my German non-existent. But as poems in their own right, many are stirring. Take stanzas 2-5 from Heighton's translation of Arthur Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat":

"I was unmoved, cared nothing for any crewmen,
or cargoes of Flemish wheat or English cotton-
now the crowd ashore were finished with their howling
the unreined Rivers let me go where I wanted

and so in the furious lashings of last winter's
tidal bore, deaf as a stubborn child, I was free.
No slab of the bank broken loose by those waters
could have revelled in a more triumphant spree!

At sea, storms hallowed my night-watches with joy;
lighter than a cork I danced over waves known
as the unceasing rollers of drowned men, ten
nights, never missing the vapid eyes of the quay-

lanterns in port. Sweet as the tart flesh of green apples to a child, the salt water seeped through my
pinewood hull, rinsed splotches of vomit and cyan wine
clean off me, tore my anchor and rudder away."

You'd have to suffer from clogged ears not to appreciate the youthful contempt and exuberance in these lines. Notice how Heighton captures a boat's lurching sensation in stanzas 4 and 5, using enjambment and caesurae to slop the rhythm back and forth. In places, the words possess a perfect fusion of sound and image. Look, for example, at the line "the far roll of waves like a mill's shuddering oars". "Shuddering oars" is a remarkable image of distant waves at sea, yet the line's sinew is the sea's sinew too: the three hard stresses emphasize the ocean's self-contained power. Here, as in Borson's poem, inner and outer facts echo each other.
The first section of Heighton's book contains several "addresses"-poems addressed to particular people, whether real or imaginary listeners. One, a sonnet called "Drunk Judgement", is memorable, partly because of its awkwardness. When depicting a divinity or an imagined ideal, delicate perfection makes sense. But when sketching life on earth, and trying to express how normal people talk, an awkward naturalness can lift the blinder between reader and writer, so the poet's vigour glimmers with more clarity and force:

"The world is wasted on you. Show us one clear time
beyond childhood (or the bottle) you spent your whole
self-hoarding no blood bank backup, some future aim
to fuel-or let yourself look foolish in reckless style
on barstool, backstreet or dancefloor, without a dim
image of your hamming hobbling you the whole while..."

There's so much conviction here that the second sentence spills out in an ungainly but irresistible flood. There's little outer reality: no cautious depiction of trees, sunsets or sidewalks. Instead, Heighton plumbs inner fact: the voice roars straight out from the stomach against the sonnet's constriction.
Heighton's better poems exhibit energy, spunk and verbal daring. The one problem with this book is hha self-consciousness that, in places, nudges the poems' telescope away from the profound and closer to the pedestrian. Daily life brims with surface details, but poetry happens when writers unearth the general facts that underlie these details. We all experience differently. But listen hard enough to the personal fact and you hear the universal one.

"After bedtime the child climbed on her dresser
and peeled phosphorescent stars off the sloped
gable-wall . . .

She stuck those paper
stars on herself. One on each foot, the backs
of her hands, navel, tip of nose and so on . . .

Her father came up. He heard her breathing
as he clomped upstairs preoccupied, wrenched
out of a rented film just now taking grip
on him and the child's mother, his day-end
bottle of beer set carefully on the stairs,
marking the trail back down into that evening
adult world-"
- Steven Heighton, from "Constellations"

In the excerpt, the narrative is intended to set the context for a moment of emotional intensity at the poem's close, but the real result is a trail of details that don't really matter. Who cares that the father clomped upstairs? That he put his beer bottle down? That he and the child's mother had been watching a rented movie? That the child "stuck those paper stars on herself?" The phrase "and so on" indicates that Heighton maybe needed to hone in more closely on the feeling underlying these details.
Heighton seem caught between attending to a private and potentially moving experience and reporting unimportant details; caught, to put it another way, between the sudden awe that inspires poems and the distracted self that pens them.

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