(Verve Poetry Press, 2020); pbk, £7.50
To consider Clive Birnie as a poet or an artist might be unnecessarily limiting. Both his artistic and written talent are on show in Palimpsest, the eighth of an experimental sequence of writing, whose vibrant aesthetics are indicative of his sincere love for visual art forms. Birnie’s previous endeavours include Cutting Up the Economist and Hashtagpoetry#: The Hidden Poetry of Twitter, Cut up, Painted and Posted to Instagram. In this poetry pamphlet palimpsest appears in two guises, as an innovative creative technique, and the name of a mystifying protagonist; Birnie borrows words from other works, and uses a sequence of poems to tell the story of Palimpsest – a revenge murderer.
Welcome to the world.
cut the problem small
take shortcuts wherever possible.
The story unfolds unwillingly in a matter of thirty poems. Each untitled poem is created from scraps of other texts, and builds to a commentary on the spontaneous yet restrictive contemporary world, following a perplexing and bewildering story that often leaves any true sense of plot to the reader’s own calculations. Matching the distorted style, is the narrative perspective, shifting as it does between first and third person.
A protagonist who touches on dark topics with the lightest of hands, turns a story of murder into a lively social commentary – this is the pronounced matrix at the heart of Palimpsest. Birnie concentrates on the essence of human nature:
But listen, without this
I would not be the same person. I’d be somebody else.
Somebody you would not want to meet
It matters not to me what people think.
Give me instinct. Thought is over rated.
Palimpsest reminds me of Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers; its in-between disjointed, sometimes incoherent tonal shifts offer tender moments of reassurance: ‘Death doesn’t mean good-bye’. This pamphlet mirrors Porter’s play with words and text, teasing out both darkness and light.
Every object that met the eye was unfamiliar but beautiful.
Palimpsest hacking something in the bathroom,
The floor covered in the spread of half finished jigsaw.
Birnie delivers questions in an assertive tone, asking the reader, ‘Do you get it?’ Palimpsest offers an interactive reading; in the same way you would in daily life – you must proceed when unsure – put the jigsaw pieces together, stop, assess, continue.
From the very heart of not telling but showing, story tracking is proposed through vague, blurry glimpses. Yet as one door closes, it seems that at times there isn’t another to open. Throughout this pamphlet, vivid metaphors and intense imagery replace clarification; bodies have become museums and the protagonist Palimpsest is ‘an island bordered by the black waters of an ocean’.
Gifting the reader with a concrete, tangible ending is not Birnie’s desired pursuit. He leaves us instead with the instruction to ‘work the math’ ourselves – the truth being, in the pieces we have to put together. But perhaps we can’t.
The attraction of Birnie’s writing is the combination of the vast unknown and the surreptitious hints of truth. The only thing we know to be true is our wish for Palimpsest’s freedom and spirit to never be stripped away. A crime investigation incorporating an element of humour – teaching us not to read these poems without an intuitive sense of distrust.
as no surprise that she left the facilities
looking superb: whether windsurfing
or scuba diving, the choice is yours.
Palimpsest is suggestive of the issues the modern age presents: corruption, tyranny, and isolation. In so few words, it detaches us from our human desire for insight and awareness, forcing us to take these poems as they are – manipulated, nameless, and unapologetic.