Customer Review

67 of 67 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shaking the kaleidoscope, 2 Mar. 2005
This review is from: Carrying the Elephant: A Memoir of Love and Loss (Paperback)
Carrying the Elephant is made up of 72 untitled, and mostly very short, prose poems, picking out vivid scenes from Michael Rosen's life so far, and then on to the next, which could be minutes or years later. The effect is a bit like shaking a kaleidoscope instead of turning it steadily.
Only around twenty of the pieces - embedded at the heart of the collection - deal directly with Rosen's son's sudden death from meningitis at the age of eighteen, but the pain and shock of that devastating event seem to spread outwards through the whole collection. Or maybe that's just how it seemed to me. I bought this book when I was desperately struggling with a very similar loss, frantically grabbing at poetry to distill feelings that prose somehow couldn't touch, feeling able to read half a page on a good day, when a whole book was impossible.
What Rosen does is to capture the unpredictable and the unacceptable - the feelings you probably wouldn't know about if you haven't been there, and the ones you'd probably hesitate to voice if you have. This is immensely liberating. Rosen is particularly good on conveying the inability to do normal things or think normal thoughts, and the even more frightening inability to know what you think or what you feel. And while that's happening, you've got other people's reactions to deal with somehow. Rosen gets it spot on with a deadpan account of a perfectly decent person getting it horribly wrong - the neighbour who nervously comments "Rather you than me" before going on to mention the football. Rosen follows this up with someone probably a lot closer to him getting it in the neck with the angry "Don't tell me that I mourn too much". Yes, that feeling sounds familiar. So does the loneliness and bewilderment of "I can't answer your question 'what can I say?' as I don't know what to say either." Or "You ask me how it's possible for me to carry on. I wonder if I look like someone who looks like it's possible to carry on".
So for me Carrying the Elephant works brilliantly as therapy. As poetry I'm not so sure. The pieces read like passages of very vivid, spare prose, with the rhythm and the line breaks in some, but certainly not others, cleverly conveying the feel of the content. There's not much metaphor and little conventional metre or rhyme, but maybe that's the point of a prose poem.
Anyway, the technique works well on page 61, a brusque and antagonistic exchange of letters with authority, the words and phrases tersely batted back and forth like in a tennis match. And in the more emotional poems, the jerky and disrupted feel does convey very powerfully the disjointed thoughts and incoherence of someone suffering deep pain and shock. The line breaks here act like a pause for breath in an obsessive monologue, or build up suspense and a sense of reluctance to say the unsayable, as on page 47 - "dear joe, your wild noisy huge brother (line break) is dead". The flatness of the minimal punctuation and no capitalisation adds to the devastation and desolation of the meaning.
For me though, a lot of the pieces just read like a paragraph or two of prose with the line breaks put in to make it look and feel like a poem. Reading about "the (line break) council" or "chanel (line break) no.5" can be pretty irritating unless the effect feels worthwhile and all too often it doesn't.
This is a minor quibble though - if the minimum definition of poetry is intensified speech then Carrying the Elephant says plenty that I needed to hear, and as intensely as I needed to hear it.
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