reviewed by Ned Carter Miles
Elephants do not so much stampede as they surreptitiously tiptoe through Matt Merritt's third book, The Elephant Tests, appearing only at opportune moments to underline the collection's themes. One of their main functions is as a symbol for memory; the elephant, after all, never forgets.
Flows almost effortlessly between tones, styles, and registers without compromising the precision of its vocabulary
The human, however, does. Hence comes our drive to categorise, describe and record, and, from this, the central preoccupation of The Elephant Tests: how, in language, can we describe an elephant and, by extension, nature itself?
In the scathing Six Poets Consider A Blind Elephant in Cairo, the elephant appears as an existential object over which poets argue in essentialist terms. They call it 'simultaneously wall, spear, snake, tree, fan and rope' before an authorial and authoritative voice again interjects to tell us that '[t]here is still no agreement as to whether or not / language is ever equal to an elephant'. Tellingly, this is the first time in the poem that the elephant is thus named, described in the first line only by the redundant taxonomic pachyderm.
Taxonomy comes naturally to Merrit, the editor of Bird Watching Magazine, and the esoteric and vivid names of birds feature heavily in his poems where – mixed with the fictional yet plausible sounding 'Immaculate Start' and 'Extravagant Lark', to name only a couple from Birds We Didn't See – they gently poke fun at the arbitrary practise of naming anything at all. Still, the collection revels in the diversity and richness of proper nouns and this is mirrored in the eponymous Ganesha of the opening poem who 'dances alone / in the shadows of possibility to the tune / of his thousand names'.
Nowhere in the book are the limits of naming so well explored as in Azul, where nature in the forms of sea and sky operate as a means to an end in questioning how language approaches a description of colour. The poem makes effective use of semantic satiation in listing compounds of blue, 'a sea-blue sea. Caldeira-blue, hydrangea-blue [...] lunar-blue, celeste-blue...', until the word has lost any meaning at all and, as with the aforementioned poets and their elephant, here we conclude abruptly with an admission to 'the inadequacy / of the word blue'.
Though in this case compounded nouns are deliberately overused to good effect, elsewhere their placement is less self-conscious and can, at times, interrupt a poem's flow. Such constructions ask that the reader piece together the images themselves and, though this is an effective technique, in its abundance here this can sometimes feel like too much work.
This aside, for the most part Merritt's language manages to flow almost effortlessly between tones, styles, and registers without compromising the precision of its vocabulary; often the dense and technical lexicon of the birdwatcher will descend into the language of playgrounds and pubs with 'passing students / dragging bags to the laundry, revision notes tucked / inside the NME' (Sundays in May).
In Six Ways to Navigate the City, too, we see 'traces of blank faces [...] grateful, for live football / on the big screen, exclusive imports / and a joke that kept telling itself'. Here, though, as whenever Merritt strays from the landscapes and eco-poetic themes that usually characterise his work, it is with a hint of condescension – in these poems, it seems, the validity of the passive observer depends on what is being observed. Additionally, lines such as 'Find the nearest church. A dance academy or carpet warehouse / may have to suffice' may be a legitimate critique of the spiritual inadequacy of urban living, but this is not an original approach to the question, and risks shallowness.
A similar and somewhat clichéd imagery is used when approaching the city's 'constellations of streetlights' and 'bus-stop ads for fast-food drive-thrus' (Nine Ways to Stay Lost) which, ultimately, offers nothing new. This is all the more unsatisfying when considered next to the subtlety and attentiveness with which the collection treats its more natural themes.
Merritt's control of light, for instance, is put to great effect. Throughout are references to fading light and colour that simultaneously create a hibernal richness of tone and evoke, once more, the challenges of describing anything with the vividness of lived experience. This struggle is demonstrated best when approaching that elephant-as-existential object of which we cannot aptly speak; the poetic voice describes its 'grey bulk' before interjecting: 'Did I say grey? It tends towards / a textbook shade, but occasionally colours'. This evokes brilliantly the conflict between the technical language of Merritt the Birdwatcher and the figurative language of Merritt the poet. Ultimately, in this collection, he makes interesting use of them both.
It is with this in mind that Merritt's overuse of made-up compound nouns can be forgiven. He is a birdwatcher, a classifier of nature questioning the nature of classification, and, as he relates in Genesis, life is 'gathering faster / than we can find names for it'.