Sarah Arvio, Sono with Visits from the Seventh, Bloodaxe Books, £9.95 including free audio CD.

For all Sarah Arvio’s obvious intelligence, culture, technical adroitness and articulacy, I struggled with this book. In the end I didn’t feel the struggle brought anything like enough reward.

My feeling of a fundamental aridity was at its most acute in Sono. The poem – a sequence of forty-two “cantos” arranged in generally blank verse triplets – seems to have an underlying story of a love affair gone wrong, and on this basis the poet reflects ramblingly on lost love, sex and life in a Roman setting. The writing can flash briefly into imagistic vividness or pathos, and it may be that some readers would find more to empathise with in the experiences described than I do, but again and again moments of imagination, thought and feeling drain away in wide deserts of barren word-spinning, apparently driven by nothing but similarities of sound. Admittedly in relaxed moments this can give the pleasure of inventive play, but not often.

The poems in the second half of the book, from Visits from the Seventh, offer themselves as conversations between the poet and a crowd of invisible presences. The prevailing tercets are varied by some poems in quatrains and one in five line stanzas, though as rhyme is very occasional this formal difference doesn’t in itself have a tremendous impact. However, the lines are generally rhythmically suppler and more springy than those of Sono and the poems are much more varied in tone, voice, attitude and feeling. The writing is more playful, sexier, more intellectually and imaginatively alert, and sprinkled with visually evocative, lightly sensuous and voluptuous passages that I did enjoy reading. The sequence’s fiction of conversation has its own drama and suggestiveness. In this half of the volume I had a much more definite feeling of reading the work of a real writer. Overall, though, this section too was too diffuse.

Sarah Arvio is a lecturer in creative writing at Princeton, and worked for many years as a translator. She knows words and clearly loves them, but as one reads her there’s almost a sense that for her the spinning out of words in metrical form is an end in itself, not needing a specific imaginative or emotional occasion. Sometimes the writing does catch fire, almost incidentally, but then the fire dies and the writing goes on. If she could apply her powers in a more centred and concentrated way she would produce something I would really look forward to reading.

With thanks again to the editors of the Manchester Review

2 Responses to “Sarah Arvio, Sono with Visits from the Seventh, Bloodaxe Books, £9.95 including free audio CD.”

  1. Sarah Arvio said:

    Jan 13, 10 at 5:03 pm

    I don’t write in blank verse or generally blank verse: I write in decasyllables, a very simple way to contain a variable sound. The book Sono is not remotely about a love affair gone awry–unless you call all of life a love affair.

  2. Edmund Prestwich said:

    Jan 13, 10 at 9:48 pm

    Perhaps I ought to have expressed myself more carefully. Of course a broad meaning of “blank verse” is simply unrhymed verse, but there is a very strong association with the idea of the unrhymed iambic pentameter. I respect the scrupulousness of Sarah Arvio’s distinction between this and the decasyllable. Clearly such a distinction may be important in a poet’s practice, but I’m not sure how secure it is as a formal description, as distinct from a description of the writer’s intention or of the framework of expectations with which a reader approaches a given piece of writing. This may seem particularly true now, with the general loosening of metrical conventions, but of course it was very much true in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century drama too. I can’t remember the exact wording, but Edward Thomas once defined the iambic pentameter as any line of ten syllables. Conversely, it’s easy to find lines of anything between eight and twelve or thirteen (and even occasionally more) being used as full lines in an iambic pentameter context in the plays of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Middleton. In this sense I would say that any line of roughly ten syllables that doesn’t suggest some other metre can in context be an iambic pentameter. But this all sounds very pompous. I am happy to accept that I didn’t respond as much as I should have done to the deliberate variety of Arvio’s metre, and that if I’d looked at it more closely I might have been more sensitive to a deliberate avoidance of iambic regularity.

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