This review was first published in Under the Radar Magazine, published by Nine Arches Press.
Nitrate by Simon Perril (Salt, 2010), reviewed by Maria Taylor
The history of cinema began with an antivivisectionist. The French physiologist E. J. Marey wanted to understand the rudiments of movement without physically tampering with the living creatures he was studying. He invented the chronophotographic gun, an instrument which didn’t hurt flesh but instead captured time and space. The gun itself was actually a camera, capable of taking twelve photos a second - a device which, rather than compromising skin, fur or feather, could only ‘graze the skin of space,’ as Simon Perril puts it in his new collection Nitrate.
Nitrate is a collection born out of Perril’s interest in the birth of cinema and Marey’s work. Perril himself has described the collection as ‘idiosyncratic’; he does not write of actors or Hollywood glamour, but instead deals with the mechanics of early film and the constituents of which it was made: ‘bladders, putty, collodion.’ He is also interested in the scientific processes used to keep the image on the frame, what he calls ‘the chemistry of holding.’ In particular, Perril is intrigued by the notion of the still, as well as the moments in between these images that Marey couldn’t capture:
I reached The Intermission
fallen through a here-shaped hole.
The minutes pile up like snowflakes.
‘Here-shaped’ would be a good way of describing Nitrate; since many of his poems are concerned with the static rather than the mutable. In ‘Death by Snowflake,’ not only are there more snowflakes, but also inertia and the relentless nothingness of nothing:
The minutes cover a man
lost on impact, skin
Marey’s experiments in the 1890s fortuitously collided with the arrival of the moving image; with his chronophotographic gun he’d inadvertently invented the ‘shot.’ Of course the term still exists and Perril pays homage to Marey in ‘The End of Portraiture.’ Here, Perril considers ‘photography’s slow thaw’ from static freeze to movement. He is concerned with the concept of that ‘thaw,’ when the still wings of a bird assume movement on the ‘lunar slither’ of photographic film. No accident perhaps then that the front cover of Nitrate features a collage by the poet himself of a camera being destroyed - or perhaps vivisected - to show the release of birds from within.
Which brings us to the title, Nitrate: Cellulose nitrate was the substance used as a film base in early cinema photography. It had one significant drawback in that it was highly flammable, so much so that the US Navy showed trainee film projectionists warning films of nitrate reels on fire even when they were fully submerged in water. Perril describes ‘the nitrate symphony / glinting incandescent / for an age / learning to dissolve. ‘And yet collodion was also used in early film, a substance which in liquid form was used for dressing wounds. The irony of early film having healing and destructive properties emerges as a significant theme, as evinced in ‘Succession’:
Each time we talk of the ‘shot’
a glass plate drops: pieces of photo, gun cotton collodion
continually dressing the wound
There is an implicit appreciation here that the materials used to capture film have their own inherent life and purpose like the images they depict. The beauty of this poetry is its immediacy and its ability to crystallise language. The poet’s skill is in achieving directness and economy, there is nothing superfluous here: ‘flux-wrapped / wave-swept / pulse thwacked.’ Perril succeeds in balancing delicacy with punch.
The collection is divided into three parts: Nitrate, The Intermission and Forward. The second of these, The Intermission, is Perril’s attempt to capture ‘lost time,’ the moments in between Marey’s shots, ‘an enforced intermission in which we’re waiting for our lives to begin’. These poems are much more personal and have a ‘lived-in’ feel whilst still retaining the cinematic themes of the collection itself:
The idea of cinema
in the mind of a painting,
my daughter puts small objects to bed
the idea of audience
in the mind of a poem.
There is here a more domestic, dreamier outlook on the notion of the still, whereby inanimate objects somehow conjure themselves into life. In Perril’s hands, the poem similarly conjures itself into life:
The radioactive weaponry of the poem
comes to life; the fructification of nothing
Echoing Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ Nitrate could be seen as a comment on the beauty, intricacy and nothingness of art.
About the reviewer
Maria Taylor is a Leicestershire-based poet. Her debut collection, Melanchrini, was published by Nine Arches Press in Summer 2012, and was subsequently shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. Her writing has been published in The North, The Guardian, The TLS, Staple and others. She blogs at http://miskinataylor.blogspot.co.uk/