Sarah Dawson’s ‘Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals’: Review, & Some Notes on Poetry on Kindle
£1.14 / Self-published on Amazon
Sarah Dawson blogs, at Poetry After Ink, in areas close to my interests. It was pleasant to discover that she’s a talented poet too.
The Ebook Itself
Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals is, as the title suggests, mostly about the beach, & it is clear that the imagination of Sarah Dawson, who is a talented writer, is fired by the beach. The ebook contains fourteen sophisticated poems which, at their best, are striking & memorable. In the review at Sabotage Ian Chung describes Dawson’s imagery as “tactile and visceral”, which neatly describes the ebook’s strengths, & perhaps gives a clue as to why she writes the best when relating to the beach; the feel of sand, the taste of salt, the childhood colours of the sea-side & the strange life of sea-creatures are the materials which seem to fit the best with Dawson’s interests. Going for the visceral is a way of giving imagery bite, & Dawson has a peculiar skill for this. In ‘Barceloneta, May 2010’, which Chung quotes, we have:
[…]Beneath, fish were sewn from thousands
of silk scraps - seams that faced out, unhemmed
loose threads, labels, that you ached to cut
they brushed each other; coats they ached to shrug off
The speaker pursues the image of skins-of-fish-as-“silk scraps” to the extent that they say that “you” wished to snip them off, & that the fish wish to lose them, & the desire in both cases us so physically strong that it is an ‘ache’. But we do not forget that the scraps are the fish’s skin — perhaps the labels are their fins? — & so both of these desires are oddly painful to imagine. The image is memorable because of this. Similarly, in ‘Reedmace’, we get: “Like tame/deer who’d allow you/close enough to run/their antlers through your hands”. This is the extreme of the tactility which produces the strongest effects for Dawson, as her poems are full of textures & pressures; e.g., “I press the swollen veins/which fatten”, “How do [fish] rub sharp particles/from eye ducts” (‘Observed on a Zante beach, 2002’), “old, cheap carpet ridged//in stiff peaks”, “my cheek pressed/against the white, painted wood” (‘Hastings Beach, 1992’), “slate ridge pressing the centre of my soles” (‘Our Eroding Coastline’), “my flesh spreading under my weight” (‘Korperfotogramm’), etc. As she writes in ‘Out of Shot’, “Skin//speaks tactile languages”.
It is with this in mind that her ‘Shadow Catchers’ poems — the last five poems of the ebook, responses to photographs — are probably the weakest. Without the richness of texture of the poems about the sea, these feel a bit thin. (It is telling that ‘Body Dissolutions’, the ultimate poem, has the speaker on the beach, & so some of the vitality returns; for instance, in “how can the slender grasses hold/the sand down, do they whip it back?”) The earlier poems of the ebook show in quite a contrast, with ‘Observed on a Zante beach, 2002’ & ‘Our Eroding Coastline’ being the strongest. (The latter especially so.) The stand-out poem of the ebook, ‘Anemones’, takes the beach imagery a step further, by taking the fertile poetic material of the sea & transplanting it into a decaying, domestic context, making a surreal & striking juxtaposition of ideas. By making a whole bathroom into a rock-pool, ‘Anemones’ hits a very powerful note of madness which probably every good poem needs, & which comes out here in lines such as: “I will admit that//in my arrogance, I want to live alone” & “I hate the roaches congregating/for their cigarettes behind the basin”. Something about the tone & register of “basin” makes it perfect.w
Dawson’s syntax can sometimes feel strangely compressed — she has a tendency for skipping articles, for one thing — & her verse can feel a little bit unpolished. In a way it seems odd to have a poet this good who does not boast any signs of the normal route towards publication, but I can’t help thinking that these things would be beneficial to her. That said, these are the slow areas of a poet’s progression, & considering her knack for imagery Sarah Dawson is certainly ahead of where she could be. (She would also have benefited from the services of a publisher with this manuscript; at the least, some of the difficulty of her syntax is made worse by idiosyncratic punctuation & she consistently uses “it’s” instead of “its”, which an editor would have fixed.) She deserves praise for producing such an accomplished & unexpected ebook of poetry, & she also deserves praise for producing an ebook of poetry. The issue of poetry on Kindle is a tricky one, & something to look at further.
Poetry on Kindle
The Amazon Kindle, & ereaders like it, generally display text so that it is reflowable, so that the layout of the ‘page’ adapts depending on the device (via the user’s choices in text size, etc.). The practical result of this is that the line breaks in poetry are messed up. In Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals, for instance, unless it is viewed on the smallest possible font, the lines (in portrait) will be broken in ways other than Dawson intended. Basically, this means that, if we are to attribute the same importance to line breaks that we are accustomed to do, the poems in the ebook are, in most instances, collaboratively written by Sarah Dawson & Amazon.com, Inc.
Our beach house rode up on the tide at night;
when it was lain down, old, cheap carpet ridged
in stiff peaks, it seemed strange that the cabbage-like
sea kale and shrubs sprouting hard grapes had stayed
is different from
Our beach house rode up on
the tide at night;
when it was lain down, old,
cheap carpet ridged
in stiff peaks, it seemed
strange that the cabbage-like
sea kale and shrubs sprouting
hard grapes had stayed
With the exception of prose poems (obviously), poetry is ‘non-reflowable’. This is an area where the rift between ‘page’ poets & ‘performance’ poets might show, as poems nearer the latter end may well be better placed for reflowable publication. It is interesting that Anglo-Saxon poetry, when written down, was something like ‘reflowable’ (as the scribes wrote it down with line breaks decided on the page), although I suppose this only works because of the metre. (This relates to a response I wrote on here to a silly post by Wanda Coleman on Harriet.) For unmetred verse this is a problem, but fortunately (& I will come to why it is fortunate now) reflowable text is not a problem unique to poetry. There are lots of other types of ebooks (although generally because of non-textual elements, such as graphs or pictures) which would like greater control of the layout of the page, such as technical manuals, reference books, textbooks, children’s books, etc. With all of these books beyond the market of poetry there is sufficient economic weight to provide an incentive for ereader makers to improve their provision here. I think the best advice for poets & publishers frustrated with ereaders is to wait for the technology to settle down. At least for the Kindle, Kindle Format 8 & the next generation of Kindle devices should bring some improvements. Along with the threat of piracy, I think the long term strategy for these poets & publishers is to head towards high-quality print books, exploiting the luxury status of print poetry books, or even high-quality ebooks (which, currently, would be better described as apps, & are restricted to iOS, but, with the adoption of HTML5 in Kindle Format 8, are likely to spread).
(N.B.: I have been avoiding talking about PDFs, but I do think that PDF is the best format for poetry at present. I also think that the next generation of ereaders, with touch screen & colour & quicker page rendering (with faster hardware speeds), will be better at displaying PDFs.)
As for what to do with poetry on Kindle now, I think the answer is to follow what print publishers have been doing for years with lines which are too long for the page, which is to use hanging indents to show which lines are broken by the poet & which by the device.
Sarah Dawson blogs & tweets on the issues around this post. There was an interesting article on poetry on ereaders in Publisher’s Weekly in March.