Pattern beyond Chance

Pattern beyond Chance

Title: Pattern beyond Chance

Author: Stephen Payne 

Review by Alison Hill

Stephen Payne’s first full collection Pattern beyond Chance (HappenStance Press, 2015), has a pleasing symmetry to its cover pattern. The selected font, Trinité, is an interesting choice; apparently it has no perfectly straight lines.

Poems have been placed into four sections – Design, Word, Mind and Time – with quotes lending each title page a scientific or rational baseline. A question leaps out from the first poem, ‘The Science of the Artificial’ and perhaps sets the tone for what is to follow:

This beaten track to the river

you’ve so often walked

with your retriever –

is it cause or effect?

Against the grain

Despite the careful ordering, or maybe because of it, there’s a temptation to wander at will. ‘Girl on the Stairs’ is a chance but not-chance encounter, expectant parents meeting briefly yet joyfully over a scrap of paper that gives way to the General Problem Solver on the new father’s mind. Only much later is the significance of the moment given full recognition:

Eighteen years on,

… I can enjoy almost everything about it:

the stairwell with its echoes of unseen footsteps,

tall window edging you with a dazzle of white

Cardiff sky, the crinkled message in my fingers

and your breathless, uncrushable delight.

Had the encounter been planned, perhaps this evocative poem would not have emerged.

Scientific Method

In ‘The Scientific Method’, father and daughter compare the size of font used for book titles and authors, which makes a neat counterpoint. The daughter’s outgrown picture books, in which her father admits with a certain nostalgia to ‘wanting/ once more to read a few pages out loud’, prove her hypothesis (that authors rank larger than titles on books for adults) but some covers aimed at older children go against the grain. Her father is quick to reassure:

What matters is the tendency, the pattern

beyond chance, which calls for an explanation.

Also in Design, the intriguing poem ‘Fly Flying’ considers the ebb and flow of cause and effect across countries with some resonant images:

a virus is crossing the bridge of a kiss

made urgent after a long separation

while the titular house-fly:

… tiptoes the injection-moulded contours

of an overhead locker, upside down

and somewhere a child is wondering

whether a moth can fly through rain

Payne’s language is stripped and singular, spanning the globe with detail made large. The last poem in Design, ‘Insight’, plays with perspectives of vision, from the owl as subject to the camera’s lens, with a few circles in between:

An owl closes its eyes

before the instant of connection

with the vole.

… a camera most likely designed

by a man in half-moon glasses

who pores over an engineering drawing

then rocks back from his desk

on the rear legs of his steel-framed chair

and closes his eyes.

Watches, words and reproductive memory

Precision and cadence

With precision and cadence, Payne sets out to discover exactly what makes things tick, why this is so if that is thus beforehand. He’s a psychologist with a wry sense of humour, ‘celebrating what’s haphazard and accidental’ (‘Secondhand’). There’s a tendency for some poems to appear a little tight in places; a desire to see them break free, be a little more open to chance. The poems in Word self-consciously think about language and meaning, from the sustained image of an indigo blouse as ‘a dictionary of idioms/ waiting for gesture and breath’ (‘Opening the Dictionary’) to the nature of names and the ‘Hippocampus’ of ‘Seahorse’, later recurring in ‘The Knowledge’ as a line of taxis:

Hippocampus after hippocampus

swollen with the knowledge it remembers.

The quote leading into the final section, Time, offers up more with each reading, as do many of Payne’s poems. ‘Memory traces… persist simultaneously’ while ‘reproductive memory appears almost invariably as a temporal sequence.’ The thought-provoking poem ‘A Life in the Day’ spools time across the span of a large hospital, from ‘the newborn in the maternity wing’, through a layer of selves to look back once more:

remembering an earlier Saturday

when I was this boy on a bicycle

freewheeling to his weekend job.

From ticking clocks of earlier poems to the demise of a diver’s watch which evokes childhood memories, the poem ‘Watch’ plays beautifully with time:

I think about it now in some landfill, face covered, still.

And suddenly remember its predecessor,

a child’s watch, so hurriedly discarded,

on which Hopalong Cassidy, cowboy philosopher,

loassoed the minute, fired his pistol at the hour.

Payne handles his theme deftly, with a series of poems relating to particular times and places while containing wider concepts within. ‘Riders on the Storm’ moves from Père Lachaise to Weston Super Mare, recalling Wilde, Morrison and Chopin along the way, while ‘Journey Home’ encapsulates that pivotal moment ‘On every long journey home’, the moment of the time-slip, perhaps from public to personal:

Always the same small shift as it’s passed,

the journey in some way over before its end.

This is an enjoyable and wide-ranging collection that begins at the river and ends at the shore; Pattern beyond Chance will enrich any long journey.

Review by Alison Hill

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