Review: Matthew Caley, ‘Prophecy is Easy’

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Matthew Caley, Prophecy is Easy (Blueprint Poetry Press)
15 January 2021
£7.50
18 pages of poetry (15 poems)
Review by Sean Colletti

I

Even the author’s note at the beginning of Prophecy is Easy is exciting; “shrinking, cutting out, merging, misappropriating and wilfully [sic] mis-reading” as a process for translation of Modernist and Surrealist French poetry gives Matthew Caley’s pamphlet its raison d’être and asks readers to consider to what extent translation (he calls these “‘very loose’ versions”, and versioning is probably a better word for this discussion; in any case, I’ll be referring to these as Caley’s poems for the sake of ease) is a collaborative effort and artform—separate to but including the writing of poetry.

I think too many of us still take translation for granted—that when we read even a great poet translating another great poet (Anne Carson and Sappho; Jane Hirschfield and Ono no Komachi; W. S. Merwin and…well, everyone) we think we’re experiencing that foreign-language poet faithfully. It’s a mental contract which probably needs to be signed for many of us in order to keep at bay the anxieties that come with trying to appreciate something being filtered through a subjectivity which isn’t our own. It’s certainly better to read Dante in English than not at all.

Prophecy is Easy is a great (and fun and funny) guide for ignoring those anxieties altogether. At one point, Caley’s narrator catches “a tail-ash of reefer set free / out of that wound-down window” as three girls drive by in the title poem. Where they’re going isn’t quite clear (it could be “Atlantic City / or Anywhere [twinned with Nowhere]”), but it also isn’t important. What’s important is relishing in the moment, because the future is uncertain at best. Do these poems owe more to the poets credited after each title or to Caley? This, too, is unimportant. Prophecy is Easy, however, is anything but.

II

It’s fitting that this series of poems begins on “supposedly”, as if this is all hearsay. These poems were composed by Caley in a burst over a few days (only 15 of the more than 40 produced made it into the pamphlet; the first lists the 25th of March and the last the 1st of April). The reader gets a sense of near-mania but is never lost along the way. Almost each stanza favors slight indentations in their first and final lines, which both pushes the pace and keeps the whole project connected as a sort of series of fever dreams. It ought to be read once through at the brisk speed it sets itself and then a few more times trying to experience the poems individually.

The aural quality is likely to be one of the first things to jump off the page for the reader. Caley’s command of diction and use of wordplay is impressive:

  • “– an oleander’s mother-of-pearl trunk-whorl –” (an internal rhyme in my accent, at least)
  • how each line of “The Sick Man”, including the French author’s name, ends in a word with an L (and often two of them)
  • the rhyming couplets which make up most of the second half of “The Radiolarions”, the pamphlet’s longest poem
  • every homophone of sea hidden in “The Harbour Master”, including “seeming”, “Embassy” (!) and “CCTV”

There’s even “the sound of perfumes dispersed in aerosols” (my emphasis), moving the products away from their expected sensory intake. The real sleight-of-hand here is how so many examples like these are almost completely inconspicuous on a first read because of how convincingly the narrator shifts focus, like this is all just matter-of-fact observation and not poetic observation.

Similarly, double-entendres and words-within-words pop up throughout; part of the fun of reading this pamphlet is finding these yourself, so I won’t spoil all of them. If Caley isn’t a reader of Donne, I would be surprised; “Undress” is an excellent versioning of his “Elegy XIX” that substitutes the act of going to bed for diving into water. Caley, like Donne, has a sharp wit ready for when it’s useful while also elevating the personal into something more spiritual or, at least, meditative.

III

Structurally, another highlight of Prophecy is Easy is how Caley fashions the poems’ endings. More and more in my reading, how to wrap up a poem—especially the first-person lyric poem—looks like a pesky challenge for poets. One of the most common methods which winds up falling flat for me more often than not is when it seems like a poem realizes it needs to come to an end soon, so a considered pace in a piece interested in imagery and metaphor rushes to an and this is what I want you to take away from the experience of reading this conclusion in the last two or three lines.

The endings in Prophecy is Easy are successive breaths of fresh, unobtrusive air. Multiple times in my notebook, I’ve simply written wow. The speaker in “The Infinity” who turns into the addressee’s literal bed reaches a quiet peace, “at last finding calm as the faint ache / in your hand”. “I Conjured up a Horse”, which is probably my favorite of all these poems, sees its speaker riding their conjuration over the sky. The aforementioned “Undress” reminds the would-be diver how “the spaces between your toes / have never known mud”. All of these read very much inside their respective poems and aren’t trying to reach out for something more universal or poignant. Many of them end up being poignant, though, and this is why I think they’re such good examples of endings which come from an understanding of what a poem is trying to do and not what a poet is imposing on it.

IV

Much of Prophecy is Easy comes off like coincidence, and it’s difficult to tell how much of that is genuine and how much is purposeful. When I noticed the repeating Ls in “The Sick Man” and how the French author, Jules Superveille, fell in line with that patterning, I went back through each poem and began seeing little ways in which the other French names fed into the poems that followed—sometimes through sound and sometimes through meaning, as if surnames were other types of words which needed defining. Is it a coincidence that Caley ends this sequence on April Fools’ Day? Is the verb choice of presses in “as a rare red squirrel presses…” (“The Radiolarions”) a coincidence or a strange nod to another small print poetry outlet, Red Squirrel Press? I had to check I wasn’t wearing a tin foil hat when making some notes, but the experience of reading these poems put me in that sort of mind frame—and, given that they take inspiration from the surreal, this was part of the enjoyment.

Two things which certainly are coincidences: that I’m writing this so close to the anniversary of when these poems were written and that the final poem, “The Fighters”, gives the world a little something extra in light of the recent real-life passing of “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. If “I Conjured up a Horse” is probably my favorite of these poems, it’s only because I don’t quite know what to do with “The Fighters”—as perfect an ending to Prophecy is Easy as there ought to be.

The last poem enters the subjectivity of two boxers assessing their in-the-ring lives in what ends up being a painfully sad examination of missed connection. The first boxer laments the absent bodies which were supposed to be there to receive the punches thrown. The second knows the third-party’s judgment of the fight ultimately doesn’t matter and turns empathetic attention to the first: “we both count our missed blows […] for the sincerity of / their intent […] their misguided love”. Wow, indeed.

V

The main source text for Prophecy is Easy is Wallace Fowlie’s (ed.) Modern French Poets. Caley is—supposedly—already planning a follow-up drawing exclusively from women poets of the same era (the Dover anthology only includes male poets). What a genuinely exciting thing to look forward to. These poems fit the form of the pamphlet so well and in a way where the potential of a sequel makes sense rather than trying to capture lightning a second time. This effort would have been more difficult to sustain over a full collection, where the reader might have risked exhaustion. As is, this is an easy and early 2021 recommendation for basically any reader of poetry except those who require faithful translation as a rule and not versioning. It’s the kind of reading that makes you want to search for extra material about the poetry online afterwards, which is how I can also recommend this interview with Caley (done by another poet worth reading, Tom Bland); there’s more insight than I can offer and a little more coincidence, too. Blueprint Poetry Press can and should be contacted directly via their e-mail (blueprintpoetry[at]gmail[dot]com) to place an order, which not only supports another small poetry operation in the UK but also nets you what will certainly wind up being one of the year’s most memorable poetry pamphlets.

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