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A means of survival

Soft Sift: Poems, Mark Ford, Harcourt: 50 pp., $23

June 01, 2003|John Palattella | John Palattella writes about poetry for several publications, including the London Review of Books.

Not long ago I saw someone wearing a black T-shirt with a slogan in neat white letters: "Yes, I live in my own world but at least everyone there understands me." The personae who inhabit the 30 poems in Mark Ford's "Soft Sift" are socially and psychologically isolated, and if they wore T-shirts, their slogan would be, "Yes, I live in my own world but even there hardly anyone understands me."

The book's besieged and tender characters struggle with a nearly paralyzing sense of pain and rage. "I want to punctuate or somehow refute / my own breathing," explains the speaker of "Beyond the Boulevard." And in "Twenty Twenty Vision" a drunk says to a bartender, "these tumblers empty themselves / And yet I persist; I am wedged in the giant eye / of an invisible needle."

"Soft Sift" is Ford's second book of poems and takes its title from a line in Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Wreck of the Deutschland": "I am soft sift / In an hourglass -- at the wall / Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift." Ford's poems are studies of the psychological defenses people fashion to contend with the drift of time and the erosion of individual autonomy. These issues have been among the typical concerns of poetry since the Romantics, but Ford does not address them in a typical way.

In one of the book's best poems, "The Long Man," Ford offers a fable based on the Long Man of Wilmington, an ancient 235-foot figure carved into a hillside in Sussex. In the first stanza the long man "winces with the dawn; he has just / endured yet another mythical, pointless, starry / vigil. His ankles ache, and the weather looks / irksome and moody." So much for the Romantics' blissful vision of nature as the source of the sublime. Nature is a great absence that sustains only "the straggling furze, various grasses, and the odd / towering oak." Still, despite such metaphysically wintry conditions, Ford himself persists, if only by approaching them on a smaller, slightly less terrifying scale. In the second stanza, the poem shifts to Ford's voice, and he imagines "someone tracing / a figure on the turf, and wearing this outline / into a path by walking and walking around / the hollow head, immobile limbs, and cavernous torso." With the image of a human pacing around a hollow human figure, Ford offers a haunting portrait of self-scrutiny as a means of survival in an indifferent world. His long man could have walked out of a play by Samuel Beckett.

The effects of Ford's idiom are often just as intriguing. Because of its use of fragmentation and intertwining of different kinds of diction, Ford's style has drawn comparisons to that of John Ashbery, who contributes a foreword to "Soft Sift." But Ford's poems are more tightly choreographed than Ashbery's. Whereas Ashbery lets phrases cascade over many lines, Ford rarely lets them spill beyond three lines and uses colons and semicolons to sluice the flow.

Ford most resembles Ashbery in his use of images. In "One Figures," Ford writes of commentators "who rebuke / us all for invading the distance between soil and words, / hunger and clouds." Like Ashbery, Ford surveys the distance between the abstract and the concrete, between words and soil, by describing both in the most exacting terms but not allowing one to trump the other, as one finds in "He Aims":

As a child's tongue probes a wobbly milk-tooth,

one is drawn to the far-flung, imperishable

scenes featured

in a company calendar: veldt, ice-floes, desert,


of prairie. Under the gentle aegis of a wide-

angled lens, earth and sky exchange elaborate

favours. The greyish remains of an unlucky


streak the aureate canyons of Death Valley. A


of startled antelope gallop into the sunset: out

of frame a lion pursues, because his name is


What's striking is how these lines glide from image to image as the perspective shifts from close-up to wide-angle. Equally striking is how awe is undercut by bathos, with the pathologized intermingling of the earth and sky giving way to the midge flattened on a cheap photo of Death Valley. The entire section hinges on "midge." The yoking of "wide" and "midge" nicely expresses Ford's fascination throughout "Soft Sift" with the supple tension between the minuscule and the vast. (In this one is reminded of Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Man-Moth," which takes its title from a newspaper misprint for "mammoth.") Just as the probing tongue tries to dislodge the wobbly tooth, Ford's probing mind has seized not only on another reminder of impending loss, a dead insect, but on a rather evocative word for this particular bug. The midge is there because its name is midge.

In "Contingency Plans," Ford remembers driving along a road and listening to the radio: " 'I'm a Rhinestone / Cowboy' rode bucking and spangled across the airwaves / That spread above the country's bumps / And hollows." Many of the poems in "Soft Sift" are like that tune. Spangled with wordplay and dark humor, they lay claim to one's attention through their artistry and insouciance; they insist, in the face of the insolubility of existence, on the necessity of their bizarre and exact designs. "True, it is only a picture, but someone framed and hung it: / it is apposite," Ashbery writes in "A Driftwood Altar." With "Soft Sift," Mark Ford shows that he could not agree more.

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