randy_byers: (Default)
Trio.jpgI was reading Sarah Tolmie's fantasy novel, The Stone Boatman, when [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond visited in May, and I waxed sufficiently enthusiastic about it to him that he found and gave me a copy of her other book, Trio, while he was here. Trio is nothing like The Stone Boatman other than in exhibiting the sensibility of a poet. As the jacket copy has it: "A collection of 120 sonnets in eight parts, Trio reveals, frame by frame, a married fortysomething female narrator in love with two younger men -- an intellectual and a dancer -- and torn between the claims of the body and mind."

I remember one of the poems revealing that the narrator/poet was in her 40s, but while I'm also pretty certain that the poems mention that she's in love with more than one man, I don't know that I could have figured out that one was a dancer and the other an intellectual, or, for that matter, that she was married to a third. In one of the poems, as I recall, the narrator/poet explicitly says she has kept the identities of everyone (including herself) ambiguous, if not confused, perhaps so that the reader could identify with all of them. To be honest, I almost gave up on the book very early on, because I found it almost inherently precious and coy, and I wasn't sure I was prepared to read a lot of impassioned poetry about love and sex at this particular juncture in my life. I have read another sonnet sequence -- Love, Death, and the Changing of the Season by Marilyn Hacker -- about the rise and fall of a lesbian love affair, so it's not that the sonnet sequence is repulsive to me as a form of literature. I'm not particularly well-read when it comes to poetry, but neither am I completely helpless.

What kept me going with Trio was the way that Tolmie flipped the gender script in a number of powerful ways. First she made the male body the vulnerable object of specifically female desire. (In Hacker's sequence, the female body was still the object of desire, even if the desiring subject was also a woman.) Tolmie also gives her female narrator/poet a sexual swagger and self-confidence that sometimes becomes mocking or condescending toward her male lovers. I found this irritating, and I was fascinated by my own irritation. Was it a purely defensive reaction? (My guess is that the answer is probably, "Yes.") The way that Tolmie made the female in the threesome -- foursome? I'm not sure whether the husband is the subject of any of the sonnets -- the figure of power and judgment and conquest was very unusual in my experience, and she earned my respect with her stance.

It took me a long time to read all 120 sonnets. Reading poetry is just a lot more work than reading most prose. I didn't reread or give a close reading to all the sonnets, but the ones that captured my attention got more of my time and energy. Again, I'm no expert on poetry, and I can't say I picked up on the over all clusters of imagery. (Karen Burnham's review at Strange Horizons strikes me as astute regarding how the poetry works, and she also points out that the narrator has two children, which is another detail I completely missed, along with the husband. Argh!) Anyway, I was also going to point out that Tolmie uses a lot of internal rhyme or near-rhyme, but it doesn't preclude the more typical couplets of sonnets. Here's one of the sonnets that I liked the best, to give you a taste of her poetry:

The love of a poet is a bullet.
Who can you ask to take it? You could not.
Can't bear the searchlight's glare, the ripping stare,
Admixture of what's wanted and what's there,
Compressed into a foreign object lodged
In the brain. Invasive love: it causes pain.
People flee it without knowing what it means,
Instinctually. The bloodied shell, falling
From its graze, carries a payload of
The DNA, fine, clean, a better print
Than the original. Such is the hell
Of the beloved, unable to tell
What he might have been, unimpeded,
Unenhanced, out of the pathway of her glance.

I particularly like how she follows the hell/tell couplet with the internal rhyme of "unenhanced" and "her glance". On the other hand I'm not sure I fully understand the metaphor of the shell. First of all I wonder if she means the slug rather than the shell, since a shell wouldn't graze what's shot at typically. Also if the slug is a load of DNA, isn't that an image of sperm? Or does she mean an ovum? Or is she talking about how the poet creates an image of the beloved that's superior to the original? I guess the latter makes the most sense: the image of beloved perfection created by the poet can become a painful form of distortion, something the real person can't possibly live up to. Blood is thinner than poetry? (She meditates in another sonnet -- one of the swaggering ones -- on how her poetry is making her lovers immortal.)
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
The Stone Boatmen.jpgI picked up this fantasy novel at the last Seattle Potlatch on [livejournal.com profile] voidampersand's recommendation, and I didn't know much about it or the author before I started reading it. Within a few pages I looked the author up to confirm my suspicion that she was a poet. She writes prose like a poet: spare, careful, precise, and a little precious. The imagery is strong, and everything feels highly symbolic and subtly ornate.

The thing that makes this novel stand out is the highly original nature of the world it's set in. It's not remotely like generic Fantasyland, and it's not really like any other fantasy world I've read about, although there are aspects of it that reminded me of Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria. Part of this similarity might by stylistic too, since Samatar is also a poet writing a fantasy novel, but part of it is just how different the imaginary worlds are from anything else I've encountered. I've seen The Stone Boatmen compared to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels too, but I have to say that I didn't see it myself. But what I was going to say on this point was that it also strikes me as poetic, in the sense that poems are often about themselves and their own uniqueness. It's almost avant garde in the way it tries to avoid being generic, and yet it also avoids the incoherence that avant garde works can suffer from their lack of connection to anything familiar, at least for an audience unattuned to their individualistic meaning.

Anyway, it's a little difficult to summarize what The Stone Boatmen is about. It's about three cities that are all across oceans from each other and long out of contact although all were founded by the same civilization. One city specializes in rituals, one in poetry, and one in visions, and the deep matter of the story is how each of these things is a type of pattern-finding or meaning-communication. It's a multigenerational novel, with almost every chapter being about a new character who is a descendant of the characters in the previous chapters. It goes at least five generations deep, maybe six. If the story does have a similarity to standard fantasies it's in the way that it's mostly about the aristocracy. In the beginning a ruling family marries into a lower class fishing family, but after that all the characters are from the upper class, with basically unlimited resources to pursue their talents.

All the characters have talents, mostly falling into the three foci of the three cities. Another way that The Stone Boatmen makes me think of Samatar's novel is that both take religion seriously. In The Stone Boatmen this comes in the form of both ritual and vision. Perhaps the poetry functions as a kind of sacrament too. There is no overt religion with a church and gods, however, unlike in Samatar. (There are priests, but no theology to speak of.) Tolmie seems to be trying to tie everything together in the final chapter, but I confess that I'm not sure I understood her argument. It may have been an attempt to rationalize the visions of the future and the deep past that some of the characters experience in terms of pattern-finding. There are a number of twins in the story, and the final seer, Fjorel, observes that they are both identical and yet unique, and that this is true of classes of things in general. She has a revelation about this that may amount to realizing that the similarity of things is true through time, and this allows us to see into the past and the future. However, as I say, I'm not at all sure I understood the revelation.

This is also a non-genre story in the way that nothing much happens. There are adventures of a type, but not much in the way of swashbuckling. Characters and their relationships change, sometimes surprisingly, but it's not really a story of character either. Ultimately it's a story of discovery and ideas, and while I found it a little slow-going at times, I really appreciated the attention to detail and the strangeness of the whole endeavor. The uniqueness of the world is reason enough for the visit.

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