Review: ‘Astéronymes’

When Claire Trévien’s debut pamphlet – Low-Tide Lottery (2011) – was first released, Andrew McMillan described it as ‘laden with accomplished images’, and proffering a ‘wealth of personal, historical, literary, and linguistic detail which elevates the work’. Five years on, Trévien’s brave new collection is now characterized by the maturity of absence, not abundance. Each delicate, almost fleeting poem revels in the poet’s sensitive eye for spaces seen and remembered. A poet is revealed who has, in the interim, honed the rare art of the unsaid. 

The title, Astéronymes, denotes a ‘sequence of asterisks used to hide a name or password’ and guides us to the heart of the collection: nearly all of Trévien’s poems play on words that are sensuously redacted, taken apart, or hidden in plain sight. The eponymous poem, ‘Astéronymes’, imagines the reader puzzling over a novel in which ‘odd pages / have been turned into plywood bones’, and selected words are tantalizingly masked. In this disorienting world, Trévien writes, ‘The places you don’t k*** have been asteronymed. / The places that might or might not e*** have been asteronymed’. As the poem progresses, the disappeared words become more difficult to guess. Lines like ‘Resist b********* something you won’t stop’ open themselves to a range of haunting possibilities. The reader’s suspense is compounded by a knowing narrator who gives voice to her frustration: ‘you tire of proper names hiding behind / asterisks: where are the atpersands? / the octothorpes? the circumflexes?’

It is this act of grappling with what is lost or unknown that lends the rest of the collection its driving power. In ‘Arran Sequence’, a long poem that anchors the first half of the collection, Trévien interrogates a windswept island in the Firth of Clyde with a cartographer’s care, as if forcing the land itself to give up its ‘carved myth’. Not content to meditate on the ‘Gothic scrabble of rocks’, Trévien creates a landscape of her own: several sketches in the sequence adopt a technique in which a word from the title is broken up and used to start and end each line. Every other line from ‘The King’s Cave’, for example, starts and ends with ‘ca-’ and ‘-ve’ respectively –

Catered to the imperative,
This church demands quiet
Catcalls of wonder, a jive

– while each alternate line of ‘Goatfell’ starts and ends with ‘Go-’ and ‘-at’, or ‘fe-’, and ‘-ll’. Such intricate experiments, in the structures of poems as well as their constituent words, suggest that Trévien is as much a geographer of language as of place, seeking from both ‘which is ancient, which is true’.    

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The same rings true of the poems in this collection which dwell on other landforms. Among them, Trévien’s brief ‘Instructions for Making a Standing Stone’ stands out for the deft parallels she imagines between human tenacity and the art of fortifying a megalith: one must  ‘strengthen the core with chunks of teeth’, and then ‘plant it uphill’ – for after all ‘the right brand / of wind will slim it down with time’. Another poem, ‘Rollright Stones’, focuses wryly on the occupational hazards of writing about a tourist attraction (‘Men come and stand in its centre … and interrupt my poem’), and contrasts the empty buzz of male curiosity (‘Their arms are full of peepholes’) with the still solidity of the stones – and the poet herself. Towards the end of the volume, ‘Cìr Mhòr’ lists the fragments of past lives found in vacated lots on that mountain: ‘slate placemats, precariously leaning against each other’ in one, or ‘an incomplete set of dominos’ in another. By dipping into material culture Trévien recreates, from these barren plots, a broader history of the Scottish highlands and the Clearances.

Scattered throughout the collection are a handful of faux-commemorative poems – such as ‘The Museum of Water’, ‘The Museum of Author Corrections’, ‘The Museum of Sleeping’, ‘The Museum of Waiting’, and others – which stand individually, and yet, like the enigmatic stone formations the poet discusses elsewhere, may be taken as members of the same circle. If Trévien’s other poems tap on the narrative power of human or natural artefacts, these cross-examine the idea of the artefact itself by bringing together selections of created and curated things. The ‘Museum of Water’, for example, links the fluidity of light on a postcard to the passage of blood through a kidney’s sieve, while alluding, through the lines’ pulse and rhyme, to the dance and detritus of human movement:

Elsewhere, backwash, broken water,
A hacked freezer, your favourite river
Carried from one country to another.

A more formally inventive inclusion, ‘The Museum of Author Corrections’, features a poem with Trévien’s own questions and revisions in a parallel column, as if featuring her own critical, curatorial hand as part of the final work. Most interesting among the ‘Museums’, however, is ‘The Museum of Family Portraits’, which is a tender, self-conscious collage of scenes from Trévien’s family history. Presented as an abecedarian (the first letters of each couplet progress from A to Y), they chart several generations against the tumult of world events: ‘He came back from camp while she was washing her hair. / His deportation was carved in a tobacco tin’. But Trévien does not merely retell familiar lore; as the fourteenth couplet (‘No. / No.’) suggests, her own voice is there in the work, grappling with these other voices from her past, resurrecting some and suppressing others.

The last piece from the collection, ‘Item Waiting to be Catalogued’, provides an apt finish to Trévien’s inventory of things lost and found (with a special nod to ‘Index in Progress’, and ‘Index in Progress [2]’). Like the Mughal painting on which it is based, the poem implies there will always be items, people, and places that reside stubbornly beyond our ability to document them. These defiant quantities, though, can be studied, weighed: ‘The absence of gold is not necessarily significant. / The absence of mess suggests it is significant’. While even a book of absences must omit some others, Trévien points us circumspectly towards the forgotten and deleted histories beyond her reach. Her words have left us wiser, and more observant, to trace their contours on our own.

Theophilus Kwek

‘Astéronymes’ is published by Penned in the Margins, RRP £9.99.

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