Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Isobel Dixon - The Tempest Prognosticator (2010)

Isobel Dixon. The Tempest Prognosticator. Umuzi, 2010. ISBN 978 1 41 52 0161 9.

Reviewer: Joan Hambidge

Isobel Dixon published Weather Eye in 2001 and A Fold in the Map in 2007. Her new volume The Tempest Prognosticator is indeed a virtuoso collection. The poem “Usury” came second in the Ilkley Poetry Competition in 2007 judged by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. There are other commendable poems and nods from the greats. J.M. Coetzee praises the sparse volume with exciting poems as “virtuoso”. Dixon has published in South Africa and in The Paris Review, The Guardian and several poems have appeared in anthologies.

The title refers to the model invented by Dr George Merryweather invented in 1850, curator of the Whitby museum. Twelve glass bottles set in a ring round a stand with a bell encircled by twelve hammers. The hammer was attached to a bit of whalebone set in the neck of one of the bottles. In each bottle was a leech, we are told in the endnote, and when a storm approached, the leeches climbed up the necks of the bottles. This action disturbed the whalebones and the bell started ringing. 

An apt epiphora for these wonderful and enticing poems with a blend of urban legend, mythology, literary references and science.

A toktokkie is described as a "shined-up desert Fred Astaire // doing his African rendition // of the old girl hunt ballet” (15). “The Inoppurtune Baboon” reveals a “sky blue arse”(16). The motto by Henry James “Cats and monkeys; monkeys and cats; all human life is there” carries a subtle Jamesian warning: show me, don’t tell me. Dixon applies this dictum in her imagery. 

In “Root verses” the speaker prays for “the peace of photosynthesis” in an awareness of the deep organic and Buddhist mystery of vegetables. In a humorous poem “You, Me and the Orang-utan” desire reflects a dream of Borneo. “A Beautifully Constructed Cocktail” (22) reflects on the poetry in the names of cocktails. “Astronomy Sonnetry” – in memory of Syd Barrett – is a whirlwind of references and a technical dance “for the lost son of Otter” (36). “Silking the Spider” (37), a personal favourite, is a homage to Louise Bourgeois the well-known French artist and on the delicate work of spiders.

A small but potent poem is entitled “Paradox”(41):

There’s no telling what
will make the heart leap, frog-
like, landing with a soggy plop.
Love startles, makes a mockery
of us, and yet we lie awake
at night and croak and croak for it.

There are intelligent feminist perspectives in “Contract” (47), “Housewifery” (50) and fascinating renditions of King Kong and Psycho.

Ruth Padel in The Poem and the Journey (2007) argues that there is no one secret to reading a poem, but to think of it as a jouney. In Isobel Dixon’s volume one is constantly reminded of the poem as a journey: references to other poems, other continents and an interesting relationship between a South African poet living in England sending her letters home: “The road // to home has yet not been made straight” (62). “Postcard from the Colonies” (12) speaks of a “2 ½ reis”.

A blou koggelmander as a mistranslation of salamander (52) reveals an interesting grappling with words. A stoep after all is net a stoep, jy weet.

It is a most commendable volume of poetry. Indeed a rich reward for the poetry reader.


sweet fallacy the heart
this heaving muscle glistens darkly
something like a toad

[This review has been published in Tonight before.]