Review: “Red Stain” by Liza Porter

"Red Stain" - A collection of poems by Liza Porter.

Publisher: Finishing Line Press | Author: Liza Porter | Buy: Amazon UK / Amazon USA | More: Poets & Writers

Liza Porter opens her nineteen-poem pamphlet, Red Stain, with a quote from Louise Gluck:

You who do not remember
Passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again

Gluck is a touchstone for Porter’s short, nicely-textured collection of poems. Gluck is one of the greatest poets of recent times. Her sparse, lint-coloured world is breathtakingly clear; stillness drips out of her poetry like bees from a hive. Unfortunately the problem for Porter is that quoting such a magnificent poet opens the window for unfair comparisons. It also makes me want to pick up Gluck’s  Meadowlands (1996) or The Wild Iris (1992) instead of Red Stain. I’m pretty sure Liza Porter won’t go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, or inherit the US Poet Laureate title. Unlike Louise Gluck, she is not a major poet. She is, however, talented:

I pay attention, that’s what happens, that’s all
I hear, for once, I think I hear angels, I can’t be sure,
I hear singing, nothing else happens

In elevated moments like this Porter shares the sparseness of Gluck’s beautifully calm world (in my eyes Louise Gluck writes imagist poetry with a modern ear, like HD with an iPod). Liza has learned from her heroines the ability to use simple language to describe a moment, to distil pathos. This is a skill which lends cadence and subtlety to her poetry. Writers like Louis Macnice, RS Thomas and WB Yeats all worked incredibly with cadence. The majority of modern writers cannot do it full stop. As a consequence the poems where Liza Porter gets her influences in order are her most successful ones. There are moments when magic melts a little honey into Porter’s pen:

Just South of Newport that summer, its depression-ware
dishes dull primary colours, the muddy spring
trickling down to the beach like blood from a cut

Throughout Red Stain it is clear that Porter is a tortured soul; the violence she has suffered is always at the forefront of her poetry. At times it moves with alluring verve and pace, but like any substance that is too strong, it can push in the opposite direction (away). The poem “The Anorexic” ends with the uncomfortable lines:

Her black
Rage. His face
Suspended in
Mid-rape.

Rape is such a hard subject. It shouldn’t be ignored, but I can’t help but feel – especially as a man – that we are somehow all to blame, we are all implicated. The danger is that the dominance of sexual violence as a theme in Red Stain will narrow Porter’s potential readership to those who enjoy reading about sexual violence. I can’t imagine that’s a huge stratum. Nevertheless Jenny Saville sells a lot of paintings, Billie Holiday sells a lot of records, so there must be something there, if not for everyone.

Perhaps Liza Porter’s most enjoyable poem is “The Dance”, a lovingly doe-eyed poem which casts Bruce Springsteen as a would-be saviour to “some lonely 16 year old girl” or a poet down at the front at his concert. It’s the most successful poem I’ve read about The Boss since “Do You Think Bruce Springsteen Would Fancy Me”, by England’s most divisive poet Pam Ayres.  Red Stain is a well-conceived, successfully-fabricated pamphlet. I just hope some of those dark colours come out in the wash.

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Charlie Baylis lives and works in Nottingham. He is the flash fiction editor of Litro NY. He reviews poetry and fiction for Stride and Neon. His own creative writing has most recently appeared in Stride, Agave and Litro, he own poetry has been short listed for the Bridport (UK) and Pushcart prizes (US). He spends his spare time completely adrift of reality.