3.Avatar Review
     A Review of Poetry, Prose, and Art - Summer 2001

Almost, by Oliver Reynolds
(Faber & Faber, 1999)

Reviewed by Steve Harris

Love is the dominant theme in Oliver Reynold's collection Almost. And the lover he calls forth Helen is classical, timeless, elusive. But, like HD before him, Reynolds' makes clear, in the opening poem "Palinode," this will be his retelling, his Helen, imagined within the boundaries of the poet's memory rather than that of remembered myth:

What is myth is not you.
What I wrote is untrue.
Men died for a decoy
Your double sailed toward Troy.
Reynolds' Helen is most fully realized in "14s for Helen." In the 14 stanzas of the poem, Reynolds moves as if in a dream. The poem portrays, seemingly, an idealized but contemporary love affair with a young woman that is also charged with elements of timeless myth. The opening stanzas are both startling and tender:

You are French. You're fourteen with long red hair.
As we make love
On a Louis Quartorze chair, all you wear
Is one black glove

And a silver chain singing at your neck,
Jingling sunlight and air
As we sway to Putney on the top deck:
'Deaux allers a "Homme Vert"

Les Champs Elysees is the Fulham Road.
Our bus fills with the crack
Of myrtle branches on the roof, their fragrant load
Of incense and arrack.

We've brought Valentine's Day to November.
London's asphalt orchard
Reflowers again as I remember
My name for you: Orchid.
However, the outside world intrudes on the lovers, with the suggestion of death with pennies on eyes, a celestial bus, a descent into the underworld:

The bus snorts, shudders, stops dead in its tracks.
Looking down, we could swear
As the sun dapples us with dots and flecks
The road is a river.

Our conductor speaks: 'It's not the Thames or the Seine
Or the light playing tricks.
Look at it now, and then never again.
It's the Styx.
The poet, like Proust, is cocooned deeply within memory. He refuses to end the story; he leaves death as a fragment, only as part of the dream. The part of the dream that lives on is the memory of love. And, it lives on in the delicate tinkling of Helen's silver chain, an impression that is both fragile and enduring. Helen walks the walls of Reynold's memory in a way more erotic, more personal, more subject to metamorphosis than the static image of the Spartan queen.

You're English. You're my age. Your hair is brown and short.
I take your hand.
After rain and river, blindness and sight,
We reach dry land.

I am drenched with memory. Time and place
Are this night,
This bed and the smell of tea-tree oil on your face.
You turn off the light.

Silver charms whisper your Star of David
And your lucky turtle.
Then whiffs of heaven...I must have drifted...

(14s for Helen)

Helen reappears in the poem "The Gap," which starts at the store by that name, but quickly expands beyond the labels and tags into so much more:

It's H and I've O.D.'d
Intravenous, straight to the heart
And here I am stumbling toward an ode
A paean in reverse, a hymn to hurt,
Once again, Reynolds turns language toward the erotic, while having fun with the store's name:
Your white jeans had a workman's loop, handy for a hammer,
Which, climbing into a cab ('Chinatown...'),
Snagged, and the seam gave, and gave me more:
A private road to Paradise, which, serpentine,
I took, exploring this gap, this fissure
For my fingers, for the afficionado
I am of you: your skin, your yawn, your laugh,
Your fugues of boredom, your sharpening into desire
As the lovers eat their meal in Chinatown, the narrator is humorously conflicted by the fact that Helen is more interested in another woman. He admires how ruthlessly she makes dispassionate judgements over future lovers, but wonders how her approach towards love will impact him. In "The Gap," Helen comes closer to the distant, mythological figure of cold beauty:
I like, and dislike, how your heart rebels
At conciliation: how it's spiky, cold, angular.

The final play on "gap" is the gap of the heartless, emotionally cold lover:

But I fret over whether not having a heart to give
Means not having a heart, Helen at all.
(Is this hurt, putting on airs? Or love?
Or my usual knack for being fatal?)
I fret about what's not there my face has the gape
Of the opening door pushed at too late
As we collect all that is lost and last
And walk into that place where the ribs hug a gap
The size of a fist, and inside that fist
Random stars wait, infinite and unlit.
(The Gap)
Another emotion Reynolds turns to in his collection is grief, which is, for the most part, beautifully realized in the six sonnet sequence "The Almost." Of course, this sequence is also about love, but love that is suffering through the loss of a daughter, heartbreakingly rendered here in the third poem of the sequence:
Your palm. Your hand. My face nuzzles your hand
and your fingers tighten: my mouth quenched by your palm
or your fingers drinking my face? Welling-up. Balm.
The solitary cloud above arid land
with its promise, its blessing of water.
You wear your mother's wedding-ring with a plain band
annulling it. Your palm is boundless, a dream land
where the weather is knowledge: your daughter
has her mother's hands. She lifts them above her head,
blameless, blessing, and blessed. She is a babe in arms
in your perfect arms; she is sixteen; she is dead.
Farewell was a final touching of palms,
then our one child was christened by a thief.
He took our girl and he christened her: Grief.
Unfortunately, the last sonnet of the sequence falls short of the previous five, thus marring the overall effort. But often great writing has flaws in it, as if pinching us, telling us "yes," the writer is human.

Almost is a short collection and, at 54 pages, probably not much longer than a chapbook, but it is populated with a number of fine, memorable poems. Reynolds is a master of rhyme and form, so much so that he often experiments like a virtuoso who knows all the tricks. But most importantly, it is the lovely substance of his poems lingers. And that is as it should be.


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