Review: Astéronymes

Lolloping around Blackwells faced with the self-imposed challenge to put down the Byron and Lawrence and read more new poetry, the distorted blue henge on the front of Astéronymes immediately presented itself to me as an interesting read. Now, normally, this finely-tuned, well-honed book-selection technique really doesn’t go that well and leaves me feeling all shallow, but a quick flick through Trévien’s second book gives the adventurous bookshopper a pretty good sales pitch: poems with odd shapes; poems that don’t look like poems; poetry that isn’t poems; a whole gaggle of reasons to give it a try.

Indeed, probably the most interesting thing about this book is its constant variation. No two poems are the same, although many share a more direct connection – such as the series of ‘Museum’ poems that preserve a collection of moments and images – each poem successfully creates its own feel, from the still tension of ‘The Museum of Waiting’ to the lighter tone of ‘The Museum of Author Corrections’. Many too are remarkable for Trévien’s brave formal choices. I want to use the word ‘experimental’, but Astéronymes comes across less as an experiment than a complex volume of individual yet consistent works by a poet that is always in control; this is no shark in a tank ‘experiment’.

For instance, ‘Azahara [Edit]’ takes the form of the prosaic – a Wikipedia deletion thread. Many will question how this can be poetry, and this can actually be extended to much of Astéronymes. The fact is that poetry is more of a mindset than anything, and this is what Trévien demonstrates; we can extract meaning from this piece and allow the poet to confront us with the matrix of past, present, truth, fictitiousness, and reception exactly because, through this collection, the mock-webpage is framed as poetry. Such a level of reflexivity is found throughout Astéronymes and, I suspect, is at the heart of much of the formal creativity, another example of which is ‘Spare Me That’. Here, Trévien provides a critical reflection on the ever-changing reception and manipulation of Joan of Arc, particularly by the French far-right. Here, the disjointed presentation of half-lines ensures its slow delivery as well as its curious structural ambiguity, where the absence of punctuation invites a number of phrase-combinations and plays on our subjective manner of reading.

This is poetry that through its innovation invites fascination and forces engagement, with the repetition of a hoax Facebook privacy status (one of those everyone was posting a while ago about data) in the title poem providing just one example. The idea of privacy and anonymity is impressed through the use of asterisks (hence ‘astéronymes’) in a manner sensitive enough to avoid becoming gimmicky. Although here this crisis is averted, it does take shape in the annotations of ‘The Museum of Author Corrections’, and I do have to admit that ‘Message in a Bottlenose Dolphin’ (which consists of dolphin noise and then a mock-explanation) doesn’t click with me and leaves me feeling a bit confused. However, these faults (perhaps inevitable instances of adventurousness not paying off) have to be put in perspective, and they really are overshadowed by the strength of the rest of the book.

This sequence, split into six sections, tells the story of Trévien’s travels around Arran and uses the journey as a vessel for reflection

Aside from ‘Astéronymes’ itself, the other centrepiece of the book is the ‘Arran Sequence’, and here I must confess to one slight reservation I had before reading Astéronymes – I struggle with this sort of geographical poetry. Often it can make pretty dull reading, either because it doesn’t have any wider significance, or because a lot of places sound pretty similar on paper (I know that seems like a weird thing to say, but you know what I mean – lots of green fields and nice, blue skies with teletubby suns). However, I actually really enjoy the ‘Arran Sequence’, with ‘3. Goatfell’ being one of the best pieces in the whole book, adhering to an unusual form where the title is chopped into four and then used to bookend pairs of lines (thus, ‘go’ and ‘at’ for the first line and ‘fe’ and ‘ll for the second). This sequence, split into six sections, tells the story of Trévien’s travels around Arran and uses the journey as a vessel for reflection, with each section not only describing a different place or event but also adopting a different nuance of theme and form.

In fact, that is nearly a definition of Astéronymes as a whole. It is a brilliant collection, and the oddities and idiosyncrasies that make it worth reading are beautifully framed and presented. Claire Trévien has dropped her reader into a menagerie full of shifting, self-determined poetry and it certainly merits revisiting.