A poetry collection offers eclectic annotations by the author.
T.S. Eliot’s brilliant poem The Waste Land is famously difficult. Told so often of its impenetrability, Eliot began publishing the work with footnotes. Some are mundane—references to other poems—but others are more eccentric. A note for a line about a London clock tower’s peculiar sound reads, “A phenomenon which I have often noticed.” One can’t help thinking of Eliot when reading Newton’s (Dotterel Dene, 2016) latest volume of poetry; he too annotates his own verse in idiosyncratic ways. For instance, “Picture Blues,” a late piece, opens with a reference to Thomas Chatterton; accordingly, Newton reminds readers that Chatterton was a Romantic poet who “died at the age of seventeen from arsenic poisoning.” So far, so good. But other notes are stranger and less crucial. After “Cakeshop,” Newton attaches the following disclaimer: “There is some amazing stuff at the ‘bakery,’ enough to stop and stare, even when trying to resist.” A reminder that bakeries have tempting treats is little more than clutter, and the reader sometimes wishes the author would just let his work speak for itself. When he does, his poems are often quite good; at their best, they feature carefully balanced lines strung artfully across the page. Here is the beginning of one of the volume’s highlights, “Whitby Town”: “The Abbey is a great pile of labour up on the cliffs / —where I stand over-looking the open sea. / But early communities of faith and toil have gone / …Saint Hilda and Caedmon have gone — the monks / and fishermen too.” The evocation of the church as a “great pile of labour” is clever without feeling precious, and the subtle repetition of “gone” in the later lines is effective but unobtrusive. Simply put, Newton should stop trying to annotate his work; it stands just fine on its own.
Beyond the quirky footnotes, this volume delivers some impressive verse.