Declan Ryan reviews Naush Sabah

Heredity/Astynome is published by Broken Sleep Books (2020)

Naush Sabah arrives in – I’m not sure of the correct term – a twofer or biped or duplex of pamphlets, both seemingly unalike, and on further investigation still mostly unconnected, evidence of a voraciousness of interest, of reading, an unplaceable something the like of which is always cause for celebration. The first, Heredity, is one ‘long’ poem with a somewhat Wordsworthian sensibility, long in quotes because these are quite tiny boutique things, lovingly handstitched etc, the second, ASTYNOME, a set of shorter, fresher, swearier monologues.

Heredity is at its best in its accretions of details, its documentary eye, on making cordial “The syrup an education/in the simulated wildness/of our newfound suburbia” – that ‘simulated’ doing so much heavy-lifting, sounding the bell to keep us alert to the poem’s self-aware streak, its sense that so much here is simulation, or at least performance. It feels at times as if the poem doesn’t quite have the engine for this mid-haul, it loses its momentum at times, a mid-section diversion – admittedly elegantly handled – into notions of language as displacement feeling like subtext overwhelming itself, before the whole rights itself again and focuses on the seen, the ‘scene’, as it were.

It’s ASTYNOME to which I found myself returning more often and with more excitement, possibly a matter of sensibility rather than anything qualitative, preferring its babble and chatter to its slightly brocaded sibling. I’ve no idea if the poems are presented in chronological order of composition, but I wouldn’t be surprised – it feels like evolution in real time, Sabah trying things out, aiming to get the right balance of sparky ‘good bits’ and flashy register shifts, and by the end hitting her stride with persuasive, compelling performances for voice. Arresting phrases abound, sometimes the early poems sag a little under too many of them, the leaning into Twitter-speak moving from useful gear-shift to slight overegging at the opening of ‘In the Incognito Window’, a tendency towards fussiness in phrasing, when reaching towards a more anachronistic, counterbalancing diction – say, “now I fear the very breath of men/who care more for their beasts than for women”.

This all speaks well of Sabah, the trying out of styles, the trying on of modes – the ambitious time-shifts or composting of addresses – and it pays off especially well in ‘Reading ‘Tidal Waves of Light…’ in which the blending of ultra-contemporary and slightly more formal diction with a trust in a more overheard sort of speech results in lines full of musical charge and affecting directness:

                      And what use these visits? Your name throbbing
                                       in my temples no matter the misery
                      I alternate into. You left. You left.
                                      What of your tidal jealousy, my love?
                     Your desire? Your promises? All’s dead.
                                      At the end of the row a yew shudders,
                      blushes over the cool brachyglottis…

Sabah is at her best when she sounds a little like she’s speaking to herself. On this evidence, she has plenty to say.

Declan Ryan was born in Mayo, Ireland and lives in London. His debut pamphlet was published in the Faber New Poets series in 2014. Fighters, Losers, his second pamphlet, was published by New Walk Editions in 2019. His reviews and essays on literature and boxing have appeared in the NYRB, TLS, New Statesman, Boxing News, and elsewhere.

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