Seoul Bus Poems
by Jim Goar
Paperback; 62 pages;
Perhaps the urban equivalent of never stepping into the same river twice is never sitting twice in the same seat on the same bus route. In Jim Goar’s Seoul Bus Poems, the city that passes outside the windows is in constant flux; it is no more possible to pause it and see things clearly than it is to keep track of your own breath once you exhale, or to lay permanent claim to a seat on a bus:
——————————–and your breath is yours
————————————the seat is mine
———————-20 million people live in this corner of my heart[.]
The poems are loosely held together by echoes of the various cycles of everyday life – breathing and circulation, the changing of traffic lights, the bus-route scenery, the shifting times of day, the seasons. The collection is based on this repetition with variation, the divisions between poems as blurry as the divisions between remembered days. ‘It is always today’ in this landscape of weather-watching through windows, unscrewing gin bottles, hangovers and forgetting to shave, and it seems as if change is just what sameness dresses up as – the syntax appears to announces variation but then curls back on itself rather than moving onwards:
———————————men ride buses
———————–while men—-ride buses
Subtle alterations like the replacing of ‘than’ with ‘then’ smooth comparisons of time into its sequential, passing:
———————-shirts cost more—–one day———–then the next
Formally, too, Seoul Bus Poems moves in cycles – between densely-knotted solids, liquid-feeling short-lined trickles and airy scatterings of words on the page. As such, changes in form mirror the changing states of water in the poems, as it falls first as snow and rain, melts on pavements and condenses on windowpanes. New states mean new connections formed by their elements, and the frequent and conspicuous enjambment throughout the work makes each link seem slightly unstable and imperfectly made, as with efforts ‘to survive / an empty stomach.’ These shifting connections lead to unexpected disappearances, such as the ‘on’ of the previous example, and also unexpected appearances:
———————‘the tutor’s pince-nez lies upon yr
———————daughter’s white breast’
———————I have forgotten so many lines this winter.
The tutor’s pince-nez emerges incongruously from the speaker’s shifting memory, whole but contextless, like the mammoths found in thawing icebergs. Elsewhere, scenes from the domestic mundane connect unexpectedly – in one room there are ‘lights turning off / the darkness’, a making-strange that echoes Fanny Howe’s reshuffled ‘milk that fills the sugar / up with tea’ (in Emergence, published by Reality Street alongside Seoul Bus Poems earlier this year and reviewed in The Literateur 24 August 2010).
It is almost too easy to make language strange by tripping the reader up on fragmentary syntax, and some of Seoul Bus Poems’ scattered full stops do not quite pull their weight:
———————The urge to speak about.—rain.
———————just because.—it is.
———————right now.—as we.—It
More often, however, Goar’s collection is proof of how powerful such fragmentation can be. At its best it recalls chromatography, separating the liquid mixture of language into its component parts on the paper:
———————-what passes for
This works so well because the sentence and the moment expand together – at the same time as the awareness of ‘waiting for what passes for classical music these days’, the waiting poet and reader are aware of four separate, simultaneous things within it – the waiting, ‘what passes’ (the scenery outside the bus, the city outside the window, the time itself), the thought of the music, and ‘these days’ in which he finds himself living and waiting – this life in this foreign city.
Waiting is the perfect subject-matter for such stretched-out forms, and indeed the collection’s most perfect line is about this substance of empty time: ‘in waiting you are the numbers’. Thoughts stretch, and whole arguments emerge from the fault lines:
———————my phone should ring.
‘My phone should ring anytime you call’ is a technological tautology, not worth mentioning, but the line breaks and syntactical divisions widen the gap between the dialled number and the ringing phone into an expanse of waiting for the call, in which at any time the phone could, should ring – should as in ‘ought to’, should as in ‘probably will’ – but doesn’t quite, and the final ‘you call’ hovers between announcing and pining for the long-awaited event.
Goar’s brilliant portrait of life in a foreign city is made of such moments that melt and evaporate into others. It is an atmosphere we breathe, condensation on the windowpanes that we look through, rain we hear on the pavements outside. It is a perfect evocation of the misty ways in which we live and remember living – how amongst hangovers, under duvets, afflicted by warm orange juice and from an infinity of almost-identical bus seats, ‘mostly we drift’.