Thursday 6 July 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "Ventriloquise" by Ned Denny

As might be expected for a collection calling itself Ventriloquise, Denny delivers up a large number of after-poems: we have work inspired by Mallarmé, Chénier, Heine, Lorca, Wang Wei, Baudelaire, Hugo and more. The casual reader may find themselves daunted by such a range of allusions and reference points, but as Denny remarks in the notes, he does not want to "pretend to an erudition I do not process." We may therefore allow ourselves to dispense with such worries, but we do need to ask if the poems go beyond mere mimicry and puppetry.

Throughout, there is an obsession with light, or the absence or it: we have the sun’s "gold hammer" and "fair lace," sundown making "the forest one blaze of gold," a light bulb’s "imagined honey." Objects and scenes are constantly presented in light or its absence, "woven of dew and light," "the sunset's catastrophic gold" or "light-fatted" fauna. Denny uses these shades to indicate if something is welcoming or ominous, the mood dictated by dawn or dusk.

           A forest on the move,
           her dark frontier

           steals round the earth
           swifter than our drowned cries.

           What can we say
           that does not make light or her
            - from "Night"

Rhyming is highly favoured, and at times, the technique can be distracting from the message of the poem: too often, the content of the poems feels determined by obvious rhyme choices, such as sheep / sleep and girls / curls in "Arrest," love / above in "Clareaudience" or earth / mirth in "Song." However, one of the most enjoyable pieces in the collection is "Dusk: An Antique Song," reliant on rhyming couplets but so full of action and narrative that the reader is swept up in the driving force of the rhyme, even when broken across stanzas.

Still, the poetry is strongest when rhyme is abandoned, but form is retained. The haikai sequence of "Equinox" floods us with pastoral delights. "To the Fates" gives us three beseeching quatrains of reverence, almost like an extended Japanese death poem. Saying that, of particular note is the rhyming "A Dam," a reduced villanelle of sorts that at one point uses a clever homonymic phrase to retain its form.

Elsewhere, we find a type of zen reminiscent of "Old Man River" or "That Lucky Old Sun," Nature shown as a steady constant in contrast to human follies and pursuits. Denny is concerned with the state of humanity, how we respond in a time of constant change ("You put your head in to the hive | and nothing’s quite the same again"), akin to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, itself written at a time of great Augustan change). Novelist Jenny Erpenbeck has written (collected in her work Not A Novel) how Ovid "shows us how all things … are intertwined with one another. In the very moment we lose ourselves as human beings, he sees us at the beginning of something else that lies outside of us and yet contains us." The same can be sensed here, such as "Atlantis" consoling us with the fact that despite the "vast city," "All is beauty and order there."

Given all the literary reference points, one might suspect that Denny is playing with us when he drops in such lines as "In need of advice, we turn to the dead" and "with too much defined meaning | poetry will never sing." However, undoubtedly, these poems do stand on their own, and sing to us a song of warning and remembrance, to not rush into our new "iron age" of modernity, but to stop and recall a simpler time of light, and of a kinder humanity.

About the reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is Apocrypha: Collected Early Poems (Cyberwit, 2022). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.

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