Charlotte Wetton reviews Paris Notebook by Tereza Riedlbauchová, translated by Stephan Delbos, The Visible Spectrum, 2020.
If you like the title of ‘Paris Notebook’ you will probably like the poems within it. The first half of the title, ‘Paris’, suggests not only that city (which does literally feature) but also an international cultural capital redolent of love, art and transience. Riedlbauchová’s education and career is outward looking and these poems are pleasingly, vigorously on the move. The book also draws on the European traditions of absurdism and surrealism. This makes for a joyful feast of sometimes surprising images. Riedlbauchová is strongest at imagery, often revealed in, or deepened by, the last line. One typically quotidian image, and one of my favourites is a view from a window: ‘people mixing something in a pan | only their hands visible.’ Others are delightfully original: ‘in one restaurant they had a toadstool head on each table’.
And to the second half of the title: this series of short poems has all the flaws and all the joys of a notebook. A notebook is a personal thing that does not need an external reader. These poems do not give the reader any orientating context; if they offer narrative, it is only fragmentary. The result can be a collection of images and thoughts without intellectual drive. And many short poems placed together can encourage us to read too fast and too flippantly. Some of these poems do feel flippant; there is a ‘take it or leave it’ quality to them; such as ‘a boy on a scooter passes a boy on a bike | otherwise nothing’ or as a last line ‘then my dad appeared out of nowhere’.
On the other hand, these poems could not be accused of lecturing the reader; instead they present pictures and situations. The vocabulary is plain, the syntax intelligible, such as ‘white birds glide slowly over the roof’, and the forms loose but comprehensible. The reader feels that they are not there as an audience to be dazzled with poetic language but to share a moment which is best expressed in poetry.
And there are deep feelings and struggles contained here, though often expressed with a lightness of touch. Here are existential concerns about how we can relate to other people and places, how we can move through the world. Not only the geographic locations of the book – Normandy, Rome etc – but how we inhabit and conceive of spaces in relation to others. Desire thrums through the book; the erotic, but also the desire to experience and understand, and the fear that comes with that. Often the poems’ dream-like state takes us into a symbolic realm, a place suggestive of deeper knowing, playful and painful in turn. It is possible to sit for a long time with one piece, examining its entirety from different perspectives, weighing the truth of it.
How these poems are received will depend on the reader: whether they are happy with glimpses into another’s life – details sometimes banal, sometimes fantastical – or whether they will find the lack of concept development frustrating. There is depth to this book, but it comes in small bites.
– Charlotte Wetton
Charlotte Wetton is based in West Yorkshire. Her first pamphlet I Refuse to Turn into a Hat-Stand won the Michael Marks Awards 2017. She has been published in Poetry Wales, Staple, Stand, and won a New Writing North award in 2019. She has performed at Aldeburgh and Ledbury festivals; came second in the StAnza Slam, and has a spoken word album, Body Politic. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester and will start a PhD there in September. www.charlottewettonpoetry.wordpress.com