Urban Drift, Natalie Burdett

smith/doorstop, 2018  £7.50

On noticing

This poet is interested in things — keenly interested. She pays precise attention and chooses language to reflect that:

The arc looks effortless far off, ties insubstantial, delicate
but up close on the bridge itself you’ll admire
foundations, span and mass.

  (‘Bridges, 1. Hulme Bridge’)

Something else strikes me. At times the poet is looking past the encounter she’s in, catching a corner of some architectural fabric, or a glimpse of wasteland or sky. She does not ‘paint’ the obvious subject central in the canvas so much as noting, intensely, background details:

My questions tread carefully,
risky as the wet stone steps
but she’s happy to talk.

Across the quarry’s steep rim
mountain ash berries burn red against the lake —
dark blue despite the slate-grey sky.

At times, I was reminded of the BBC news story this heatwave summer of the ‘ghost’ buildings returning to a drone’s eye view:

Mortar foundation lines,
stretched out across tarmac,
chalk the corpse outline of a warehouse.
   (‘Negative Spaces’)

Looking like this serves more than one purpose, perhaps. It gives context: historical, and beyond-personal. It also has an odd knack of heightening, for me, a sense of the poet making her way quietly. Not meeting people’s eyes, perhaps, so much as searching out beyond them. ‘Tunnelling’, for instance, so reminds me or travelling by tube and gazing down the tunnel rather than into the carriage: ‘the black   scream / of rails pinned tight and sinking under us’.

When the personal does appear in the frame of a poem, as subject, it’s often with intensity. I like the poem ‘Subjunctive’, seemingly about some banal Spanish homework, but with something else sandwiched between its lines, almost camouflaged. Then, ‘The letter should still sound like you. / Has it said almost what you hoped for?’ I enjoy this, not least for its gentle humour.

The poet passes, almost chameleon-like through the work, which is filled with precise observation. It leaves me thinking — both about the things she’s noticed, but also why it’s on them she’s pressed her attention.

Charlotte Gann