Poetry review: 03/09/20
LLAMA ON THE LOOSE
by Nina Telegina
"... her voice is strong and ever present, her belief in love as ultimate redeemer paramount in every tale."
This is an unusual collection for many reasons - the way it begins with an interesting, erudite essay, acknowledging most people hate poetry, yet making a plea for the art form as utilised in song lyrics, scripture, the inspirational quotes that litter social media; the way it offers us technical perfection, amply demonstrating, in every line, that Nina fully understands the art form she’s chosen to make her own; but most surprisingly, because Nina herself is almost entirely absent from it. She writes as a lion, a fart, a tramp, a llama, yet almost never as Nina. Every other poetry collection I’ve reviewed this year has been about the poet - her experiences, feelings, philosophies - but in Nina’s book, Nina is noticeably absent. Instead we find technical excellence, a deftness of touch, a good dose of wit, some intriguing takes on the world. But these she gives to animals or inanimate objects. There is very little ‘I’ here.
Poetry as story-telling is a rarity nowadays. We are more accustomed to poets giving us a piece of their life and feelings, rather than the epic narratives of Homer, say, in which we are scarcely allowed a glimpse of the poet who’s woven the magic. Poetry has come to mean first person, confessional pieces about the poet’s own life and relationships. In this collection Nina returns to a pre-industrialisation tradition of story-telling, reminiscent of the Romantic era which gave us Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley. Nonetheless, in everything Nina writes, every story she tells us, her voice is strong and ever present, her belief in love as ultimate redeemer paramount in every tale.
For in her essay she tells us also how, for her, love is the key ingredient in art - “Love builds a bridge between the artist and the audience” - and it’s noticeable how every poem here makes mention of love, and not the soppy kind. This is primarily a philosophical tract on the value of deep, real love in a world where superficial appearance and charm are often so highly prized. But her musings and wisdom are so carefully, beautifully disguised - ironically - in poems of such delightful surrealism and silliness, her wisdom hits you despite yourself. You laugh, then you think.
The title track, the ‘Llamiad’, tells us how you can buy a badly behaved llama - a trauma llama - for as little as $5, which as a pauper poet is the only kind of llama Nina can afford: then takes up the story from the traumatised llama’s perspective, in flawless iambic pentameter. Such is her skill she manages us to make us feel for the llama’s abused past, its resultant angry, mistrustful present, and fully understand its jealousy and rage when another, prettier, better behaved llama comes along: it’s Aesop combined with Roald Dahl, allegory mingled with wit. When he attacks his keeper out of sheer terror and breaks her leg, we get:
Here come their sirens, flashing lights ablaze!
They’ll serve me up as llama bolognaise!
And yet the arrival of another abused llama, first inspiring rage, leads to a connection, a new sense of trust, companionship, understanding. We start to believe this llama will be OK. Love has fixed him. And it’s saved from feeling trite by the technical accomplishment and wisdom with which it’s presented, which renders it instead incredibly heartwarming and charming.
Fear forces us to forge a rigid will.
But inside, life is soft. It has to be.
Life is a triumph of fragility
In ‘The Gutter Gods’ - three dramatic monologues from an American city - Nina presents us with three more stories of love, expertly crafted, giving us a flavour of three disparate characters’ lives, their voices, characters, stories, strong enough to stay with the reader. It’s beautifully done and belongs on a stage, although it’s powerful enough to transmit its intensity in written form.
At the end she gives us a section titled “Other Poems”: less epic, less part of the narrative tradition, with just a teensy bit of I, and equally powerful. Particular mention must be made of ‘The Woman on a Pedestal’, with its wry commentary on the place of women in society (“But women don’t grow old/We fail”), which blames no one for this predicament, but looks forward instead to hope for a better, wiser future, in which it’s understood “We’re made by action, and by time”, so that ageing is, in consequence, something to be embraced. Delicately crafted, sensitively presented, she makes an old argument refreshing, uplifting, with gentle deftness of touch.
The collection closes with an ‘Ode to the Audience’. Nina is a tremendous performance poet, and the thought she gives her audience, as detailed here, surely contributes to that performance: the consideration of the different paths that might have led us all to a poetry gig, and the different paths we will follow away from it: yet in this moment, in this space, there is unity of purpose. In creating this collection she has accomplished a similar feat: bringing a readership together to wonder at her wordsmith talent.
Review: Melissa Todd
Nina Telegina - LLAMA ON THE LOOSE
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