Review - "Then" by Linda Black

Steven Waling
“Then” by Linda Black, pub. Shearsman. 104pp. £10.95

There is something about Linda Black’s prose poems that is not just beguiling but immersive. You read one prose poem, and you feel you have to read another. Then another. Go on then – just one more. The language is lush, almost too full, but there is the suggestion of something darker, less palatable just beneath the surface.

Marianne Moore once described poetry as ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, and the toads in this book of mixed prose and lineated poetry seem to be fragments of real life coming up out of a language that slips and slides like an ice-dancer on thin ice. For instance, I thought I saw in the text a figure with a stick or calipers: parent? Relative? An imagined figure from a dream? A fiction? Or am I imagining it? I can’t find them now…

These figures drift in and out of the poems, shadows and ghosts, memories and nightmares. The girl in Girl in Peril, for instance, is

A floored penny, a floundering fluke, on a hillside, in a headscarf, about to depart. Scoots back her chair a short distance. Closes the table. Fills a thermos with salt. Throws it in a particular direction.

There are perils all over this collection. The language boils and blisters into some kind of partial revelation, but just as you’re getting towards something, it slips off into something darker.

Bagatelle, for instance, starts off aggressively enough:

Bilious little bugger: belly up, head banged, bounced off the stairwell (don’t tell, home is hell). Filligree mouldings, obscured passageway, spotted glass – regular little nipples.

This suggest abuse, violence in the family; but it’s not clear. Is someone actually being hit, or are we only talking about the game of bagatelle described in the next paragraph/

What’s fascinating about this is how much is left out. There is a suggestion of a narrative, of a character, but there is so much left out that the reader has to fill in, or not. This could be annoying; there are poems I read by other authors that are like puzzles without answers; I don’t care because the language lies dead on the page. Here the language is suggestive and active, mobile and mysterious all at the same time.

John Wilkinson once talked of a lot of British experimental writing as like watching the world through frosted glass. Things are happening through that window; you can see people moving about, there are sounds, occasionally a half-familiar but battered face emerges out of the mist and you think you know where you are; this is what Linda Black’s poetry feels like.

Linda Black’s poetry has this ability to take you on a journey to somewhere uncomfortable and leave you there, trying to find your way out. Her forms – prose poem, list, grid, a very spare free verse – add to that feeling. She makes the ordinary seem strange and discomfiting, as in I was alone with the child:

Sometimes    her head flopped

sunk    under water  -   I

had to check    was she still

alive    I had    no help

and the next day    did not work

Was this in place of infinity?

Attend to things – indicate politely

an ending    Rescue comes about

and the dog’s sharp teeth

set her free


What’s going on here? Something dark. I was reminded of the songs of PJ Harvey: something dark going on, unstated and almost unspoken. This is a fascinating collection I’ll want to keep returning to.



Copyright © Steven Waling, 2021