The Invention of Fireworks is Beatrice Garland’s first full collection, although she already has an impressive publishing history. As well as new verses, this volume contains poems previously published in the London Magazine, Rialto, The Spectator and P.N.Review and other pieces included in anthologies of new poetry by Faber (1998), Carcanet (2007) and The Shuffle (2009).
From the very first poem in this slender selection we encounter what later proves to be Garland’s typical style of expression. Descriptions in her poems are beautiful and vivid, with vowels that roll softly off the tongue and capture the imagination. She uses strong visual imagery where animals, people and things materialize from between the lines:
I saw a musk-rat nose across a pond,
Nudging the reeds apart without a sound.
I saw a spider, touched by a note of sun,
shake out its net, bouncing it up and down.
Garland’s verses evoke tactile sensations which make us want to feel and touch the objects described. In the title poem “The invention of fireworks: Li Tian remembers” the reader can almost smell the sulphurous residue of fire crackers lingering in the air of a century’s old cold winter night when fireworks still represented a piece of magic, a miracle and newly-witnessed novelty:
Strontium, rubidium, antimony
blazed into the night, arterial reds,
cuprium’s indigo flares
and the thick smoke of zinc
to hide our small armies
from the marauding giants.
Garland is a natural observer with a keen eye for detail. Through careful descriptions a dramatic, powerful effect is achieved without directly targeting readers’ emotions. The poet always keeps a rational level-headedness; even in the most painful verses she sounds detached, even distanced from her experience. What we encounter in this collection are not randomly written verses. All is thoughtfully considered; structure and language scrutinized and perfected. Garland almost presents us with a small novel within each and every poem. She builds up whole backgrounds for her characters and places, creating a valid sense of time and history.
For a calm and more reflective reader, perhaps a little blasé with the amount of graphic poetry available today, this is an ideal collection, although in fairness, an overly condemning critic might note a certain coldness seeping out of the verses.There are notable exceptions: poems well-filled with emotions, such as “The curse” which is about author’s ill mother. Nevertheless, as well as being incredibly moving and heart-felt, again, as in Garland’s other poems, the strong images persist, evoking the symptoms of a degenerative illness and the heaviness of the air in the mother’s room.
Sometimes I answer, speaking it close to her ear.
She stares, still as a gorged grub, soft
as a rotting potato. The warm stink of her bed
stays in my mouth for days. It’s all that’s left
alive, like the grin of a cat. Why isn’t she dead?
Have we met before? Tell me your name my dear.
What is hard to find is the connecting line, the thread that runs through this collection; descriptions and memories follow one another without any obvious linearity. This might be an unfortunate editorial decision or it may simply be the way in which the author recollects her life, in tune with the random pattern that memory follows.
The Invention of Fireworks most certainly is a strong collection and deserves its nomination for the 2014 Forward Prize. This selection of verses demands the full attention of the reader: it is not an easy flowing, love-on-first-sight reading adventure. To appreciate the collection in its entirety, one has to sit down with complete focus and read, listening intently to what the poet is saying.