“A Penance” C J Evans (New Issues Press) – poetry review

A Penance C J Evans book cover

CJ Evans has an assured tone that explores an uneasy world where violence lurks beneath the surface. He observes with tenderness, allowing details to build an impression, usually employing terse, controlled couplets. In “Hands Full of Sun”

“They shut the lights, stay in bed.

A book spine inks her breast
like a sickness. He takes walks

when he can’t avoid his anger
at how so little can bruise her

so badly. Outside, the people
are hooded and gray, but he knows,

no matter what, she is always
the soft yellow of petals.

He goes home and they shut
the blinds against the light, and curl –

first one the hand and one the pear,
and then the other way round.”

The title is taken from Nazim Hikmet’s “Istanbul House of Detention”. The violence here isn’t immediate and brutal but accumulative: the dampening effect of erasure and reduction. The soft endings and short consonants echo the poem’s sense, the edging towards inclusion as the couple lack the impetus to escape their diminishing world. In “Penitentiary” (complete poem) the prison is real rather than imaginary:

I dread sunflowers and the brown colt-legs of summer. Thirst
after hushes and hands held over lips. I dread sun-drenched

beaches; want angry letters, pistols, and two-by-fours. I know
fists clench in pockets. I know there are always people-schemes.

I desire nothing less than to be happy with the simple happiness
provided, because I’m a lover of failure: Icarus would be forgotten

if he hadn’t fallen; nobody would worship sun without
the world’s winter half; and I want to wake without you

from dreams of sick children and their sour water. I want
to be right that it can all be taken, even in daylight. To wake,

without you, for I dread your affection, which crashes in my ears.
But ominous as a cry cut short, its lack would be louder still.

It’s a poem that’s difficult to lift a quote from because the cumulative, complementary effect would be lost. It’s a part-romantic, part-real construction with the narrator wanting to reach out but fearing rebuttal because he understands rejection and anger more than love in his present situation, yet still hopes, understanding that light looks brighter when you’ve been through darkness. Other poems construct inmates’ stories from their nicknames, often based on inanimate objects such as wire or silk so the poems can be read as being about person or object.

Not all the poems use C J Evans’s signature couplets, eg in “The Work of Giants”

“I try to read newspapers to find the rapes
or watch television to wait for the coffins,
because rapes and coffins are the work
of giants and I don’t want to take my eyes
off the giants, but I’m ashamed, because all

I want is your skin against my skin.

I’m too tired for my anger. My fists don’t
clench like they used to. My teeth have stopped
grating, and the rapes and coffins and children
and tanks and car bombs and bullets
are in me, and with all I have left to feel

all I want to feel is your hips against my hips.”

Another title taken from another piece of literature, in this case from “Le Petit Auto” by Guillaume Apollinaire. Rightly these references and allusions are tucked away in the notes at the back of the collection so they don’t intrude on reading the poems and are presented as useful background information to be read as an afterword. “The Work of Giants” captures that feeling of compassion-fatigue when one individual simply can’t stand up to the evil done by many but wants to be lost in the inhibition of love.

What lingers after the book is shut, is C J Evans’s carefully constructed lyricism and controlled tension in the rhythm of each poem.

“A Penance” is available from New Issues Press.

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