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I recognize that lump of rock – Alexa, what is there to know about love, by Brian Bilston

I’m intrigued by those things called Google Easter Eggs – which is the result you get if you type a specific phrase into Google search: “askew” for instance, shows you the search results but the page looks skewed. Search for “Google Easter Eggs”, and you’ll get lists of entertaining, quirky behaviours that the Google engineers have built into the search function. The same goes for Siri, Apple’s voice assistant – Ask Siri on your iPad, “Siri, read me a haiku”, and the result will be a haiku of sorts!

Siri’s haiku this morning on my Mac. Not bad, considering the imagery and the philosophy in it.

Similarly, Alexa, Amazon’s Voice AI, can have funny responses to some questions, and there are lists of those on the Internet, including some that make you think that Alexa has a built-in sense of humour. For instance, this one which references the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”: Give the voice command: “Alexa, your mother was a hamster!” Alexa’s response could be: “Well, your father smells of elderberries. Now, go away, before I taunt you a second time.”

Considering the fun to be had with AIs on all sorts of devices, and the fact that they are ubiquitous these days, the title of Brian Bilston’s latest collection of poetry, Alexa, what is there to know about love, is right on trend. (Note that the title of the book is written in sentence case, not title case.)

Alexa, what is there to know about love?, by Brian Bilston (Picador; March 16, 2021; hardcover; 96 pages)

Poems for tech types and all other types too

The contemporary themes and subjects are what sets his poetry apart from anyone else’s: the poems can be funny observations of modern life, but at their core they are also about the problems and thoughts of average people in their ordinary lives. Top of the heap for concerns is probably trying to figure out what love is about, and finding someone to love – even asking Alexa or Siri what love is.

The poems in this collection may be very clever, both in technique and in choice of words, and some might be edgy and express cynicism and disappointment, but they are all readable, and all recognizable.

Don’t tell me that you haven’t ever, in a moment of unthinkingness, talked to one of your AI-enabled devices. Of course you have! I not only talk to the TV but have conversations with my robot vacuum cleaner, and of course I am always trying out the latest Easter Egg on Google.

So these poems connect one hapless human to all the other hapless humans in this tech-driven world. When I read what Bilston has written, I have a feeling that he is putting words into my head. And even though they are in textbook-perfect form, it is still the emotion and the connection that stand out. I still feel as though he really gets what concerns us – his readers.

Sneaky, very very sneaky, Mr. Bilston

That is not the say that the poems are not little intellectual masterpieces in craftily constructed forms : they are.

He has done a little sneaky sleight of hand trick here – on the surface, the poems are friendly, easy to read, and appealing. But if you want to look deeper, you’ll discover all the cleverness. And if you don’t, well, then you will still enjoy them. Take, for instance: “The Erotic Shards of Hermaclides of Thrace”:

(The gaps in the lines are verbatim as in the book.)

O what love we made!
For you were not of mortal descent
        like a
I showed you my
and, in return, you opened your
        and let me

(From: Alexa, what is there to know about love?, by Brian Bilston, “The Erotic Shards of Hermaclides of Thrace”, p. 4)

All the erotic words in the poem are left out, because, as Bilston writes in a footnote, the only words that remain of the poems of Hermaclides, are on shards of pottery. But there was no Hermaclides of Thrace – there were many ancient Greeks names Heraclides though, including one from a place called Aenus who murdered the king of Thrace. But I think he might be giving a nod to Heraclitus of Ephesus, an Ancient Greek philosopher who became known as “the weeping philosopher”.

The depressed Heraclitus of Ephesus. Probably wasn’t lucky in love.

However, the reader will, without knowing all that, immediately and without fail put in their own words into the gaps, which would likely be much ruder than the mythical Hermaclides could have used! (Don’t ask, OK?)

This poem is followed by more wickedly witty ones about the disappointments of relationships: “Mrs Plato”, who discovers Hedonism while her husband is philosophizing, and “Cleopatra”, who does not return the affections of her admirer:

and that look upon her face
as she pretended to clasp the asp
to her breast

Oh, how the boys did gasp.
Oh, how I longed to be
that asp.

(From: Alexa, what is there to know about love?, by Brian Bilston, “Cleopatra”, p. 8)

Here, Bilston does what he often does – assume that his readers have a fair bit of general knowledge.

They would have to know who Plato and Cleopatra were and when they lived. They have to recognize in “Five Clerihews for Doomed Lovers”, the names Pyramus, Thisbe, Abelard, Héloïse, etc., and remember why they were doomed.

They’d have to know about Cleopatra and her death by an asp (snake). And, in the case of “Cleopatra”, they’d get more meaning from the poem if they caught the line “her infinite variety”. It is from William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (Act II, scene 2). Cleverly done, Mr. Bilston – because the line continues:

unwithered by age,
her infinite variety
never to stale by custom,
reading out loud to the rest of the class.

(From: Alexa, what is there to know about love?, by Brian Bilston, “Cleopatra”, p. 8)

As always, Bilston can deliver a rhyme scheme second to none.

I once asked him if he uses a rhyming dictionary and he said he does not. So he has a huge vocabulary and can make these whimsical but very smooth pairings (which assumes that the reader will knowhow to correctly pronounce them): Thisbe – frisbee; festivals – testicles (for Abelard); Héloïse – diocese; alchemy – balcony (for Romeo and Juliet).

Form exceeds function

Poetry is as much about mastery of form as it is about imagery. The forms and genres he has used range from quatrains to clerihews, to narrative or epic-style poems, to free form poems, to Concrete Poetry or Shape Poetry, and everything in between.

I had to remind myself what a clerihew is – as in “Five Clerihews for Doomed lovers”. It is a four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, in which the first line is the name of the poem’s subject, it is generally about something trivial and funny, and the rhyme scheme is usually AABB.

The shape of things to rhyme

However, it is in Shape Poetry that he excels. Shape poetry is a poem of which the visual appearance matches the topic of the poem – it looks like a picture of what it is about. So take, “Tsundoku” – not to be confused with Tendoku, a Japanese Buddhist ritual. Tsundoku is a real term, dating from the Meiji Era, and is “the act of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them”. I think I’ve been doing Tsundoku for years. And the poem looks like the spines of books in a bookcase that gets more cluttered the more books get piled on and are left unread.

(From: Alexa, what is there to know about love?, by Brian Bilston, “Tsundoku”, p. 26)

He also is skilled enough to manipulate the conventions of poetic form, and turn them upside down.

In “Ten Rules for Aspiring Poets” (p. 28), each line is an example of the very thing one is not supposed to do – but it all still rhymes in perfect couplets! – for instance “4. Avoid clichés like the plague. / 5. Don’t write stuff that’s a bit vague.” “Like the plague” is a cliché, and “stuff” and “a bit” are vague, imprecise words.

And, amusingly, “To Do List” is a sort of bullet list cum roundel, expressing the peculiar behaviour that’s brought on by putting things off – not doing the things on the list.

He starts with a reasonable few items about stroking the cat, making tea, watching cricket, and tidying the kitchen drawer, and with every verse it gets more mixed up, ending with:

- make tea; stroke cat; cricket; stare
- Twitter; chair-spin; solitaire
- stroke tea; make cat; twicket; wallow
- write To Do List for tomorrow.

(From: Alexa, what is there to know about love?, by Brian Bilston, “To Do List”, p. 30)

Yes, he has made “twicket” a word. It means watching cricket while you are drinking tea and checking out Twitter: twicketing. Thanks, Mr. B.

Cultural references galore

Bilston loads many of his poems with references to other poets or poetry from other parts of the world, for instance “Tsundoku”.

These can be discovered and appreciated, like easter eggs, by a reader who recognizes them. “There’s a Supermarket Where Once the Library Stood” is a nod to the title of a well-loved poem by American poet Mary Oliver, which goes like this:

“Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.

And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.”

(Extract from “What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon” by Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early: New Poems, 2004)

In stead of a shopping centre that replaces a pond, Bilston writes about a supermarket that was built in the place of a library. The futile search for books in what used to be his local library, ends in the last verse with not just one library that’s gone, but many:

There are supermarkets where once the libraries stood;
they bulldoze their way into new neighbourhoods.
Austerity diets. Towns starved of progress.
Take books off the menu and eat well for less.

(From: Alexa, what is there to know about love?, by Brian Bilston, “There’s a Supermarket Where Once the Library Stood”, p. 27)

But – very important – does it MOVE you?

As witty and skillfully manipulated as the words are, the question is still, did any of the poems move me? Did I want to read them again? Did any of them hit me in the feels, as the expression goes?

Honestly, I had to reread quite a few just to understand what I was reading, since they are like poetic puzzles, or puzzling poems. I took me a while to catch on to some, like “Better Never Than Late” (p. 35) which is about the opposites of aphorisms. So I was indeed intellectually engaged. As for emotional engagement:

The third of the four sections in the collection is more specifically about love, dating, breaking up, loneliness, and the troubles of being a unloveable poet. Amongst those, there is an intriguing and entertaining narrative poem about a correspondence between a sender of one of those scam emails promising huge amounts of money for “releasing an investment” – you know the sort he means. If you read “Mrs Fatima Sabah Adballah” (p. 54), you’ll definitely recognize the particulars and the phrases. It’s a kind of backwards, long-distance romance.

My favourite

But the one that I like best is “My Heart is a Lump of Rock”, which is not only clever, but poignant, and has double meaning for me since my S.O. is a Geologist – and (bonus!) Bilston did get the rock type, and the way it is formed, right:

Rewrite the textbooks if you please,
the scientists are on their knees,
Doctors, I'm told, are still in shock:
my heart is just a lump of rock.

It used to function rather well,
(as least as far as I could tell),
It did its job of pumping blood
and other things a good heart should.

It sometimes raced or skipped a beat
(whenever you and I would meet)
but since that day that you took off,
my heart has been a lump of rock.

Geologists are at my door
to see if they can find out more.
It's igneous, they think, in part, 
this love-cooled rock that's called my heart.

(From: Alexa, what is there to know about love?, by Brian Bilston, “My Heart is a Lump of Rock”, p. 76)

I think “off” and “rock” in the third verse is only a half-rhyme (could have said: “But we broke up – you changed the lock” / since then my heart’s a lump of rock“?). However, that does not detract from the overall impact of the poem. It’s simple, but effective. Poor man, with his igneous rock of a heart – all black like cooled lava.

Buy / Not buy?

How to review and recommend a collection of poetry? In rhyme of course.

I think you need to buy this book
because it refresh your brain,
and you will read all kinds of things
that will cause you joy and pain.
One should not go through life, like
takeaway dinner
in a bowl.
Read these verses, you will find
what you may have lost –
your soul.

Other books by Brian Bilston

2 comments on “I recognize that lump of rock – Alexa, what is there to know about love, by Brian Bilston

  1. Die digter kan sy ou skoene agterna gooi oor so ‘n resensie!

  2. It’s not difficult to write about his poetry. If only the poets I studied at university had been that easy to understand. I still have the occasional twinge of anxiety when I remember how I struggled with Opperman’s “Komas uit ‘n Bamboesstok”. Boy, that was difficult!!! Having Lina Spies as my professor did not make it any less intimidating.

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