The Elephant Tests: Matt Merritt, Nine Arches Press
I don’t like crosswords, whodunnits or things that require a dictionary, encyclopaedia of myths and legends, or even Wikipedia at hand to get below the surface and winkle out the hidden meanings of things. But Matt Merritt is a good poet with a distinctive voice, and I’m sure a collection like The Elephant Tests would make an excellent set book for examinees to sweat the meaning out of. I have no doubt that it’s the stuff that some poetry competitions were designed for.
Merritt’s subject matter includes the eponymous elephant, as well as birds in various guises, and places, and it is in the latter I find most recognition. I now know the chiton mollusc has an unexplained homing instinct and, quite uniquely, teeth of magnetite. Whether this deserves lumping the creature with sperm whales, Atlantic salmon or “even the birds” just to draw a comparison between the chains of instinct and our own free-basing capacity to “wander song-lines, desire-lines, remake maps, charts, the base metal of our words” seems to leave some unasked question unanswered (‘Magnetite’).
Methinks I protest too much. Merritt cleverly follows ‘Magnetite’ with a beautiful portrait of ‘Desire Lines’ where “each waste-ground’s a history / of every passing idea and impulse”. He is good on place and man’s place in it. 'Six Ways to Navigate a City' and 'Nine Ways to Stay Lost' provide a clear thesis that urban life moves in contra-direction to nature. His sympathies are revealed equally clearly in 'Azul' and 'Cloud Forest', both striking paeans to nature unadulterated.
As a birdwatcher and wildlife journalist he makes extensive use of the patient solitude required to share the world of birds in their favoured habitat. In ‘Watching Woodcocks 25.4.10’, or ‘Ravens, Newborough Warren’, where we’re told, “Don’t be surprised if nothing happens”, you must learn:
How to make yourself
More camera than birdwatcher or poet
Before you are gone
Into the black bead of its eye.
The uncertainties of the birdwatcher are almost a metaphor for the uncertainties of life.
‘Patsy Parisi’s Blues’ seems out of place in this collection, sharp and densely referenced to The Sopranos. Its punchline kicks in hard: “And the last thing you see / will be the last thing you ever expected”. ‘Always’, a reminiscence on lost youth, is bitingly honest about the vicissitudes of memory: “False permanence / even as it disappears beyond us”. Merritt writes that “memory abhors a vacuum”, yet “we can live by such uncertainty”.
Familiarity with nature puts our lives in perspective. Much of The Elephant Tests is forged from this relationship. The collection is wide-ranging and a review like this probably does little justice to its depth. The Elephant dimension represented in five poems could be the subject of a review in itself.
My favourite work, being infinitely more narrative and vernacular than most of the others is ‘The Dark Ages’, where, after cataloguing the collapse of civilisation in a series of sharp and witty stanzas, Merritt concludes that “facts remained in short supply / throughout, although live poetry / seems to have enjoyed a golden era.” Priceless.