An Ember from the Fire. Poems on the Life of Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson – Jane Bonnyman
Poetry Salzburg, 2016 £4.50 + £1.00 p&p
Poems with notes
Some people like poems with notes. Others think the poems should work on their own.
In this case, I think the poems do work on their own, in terms of vivid evocation of landscape and atmosphere. But in most cases I immediately wanted to know more because I knew the poems were all about a real person: the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of (among other things) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Treasure Island.
I was soon reading with two sections of the pamphlet open at once, so I could read each note together with the poem it matched, because as soon as I read the poem I wanted to know more about context.
A good case in point is ‘Ferns’. Here’s how the poem starts:
She cooked them with lime juice and butter.
Tiny spirals melted,
slopped from the spoon like spinach.
She breathed in their bitterness.
At six she served them
with hard bread and onions.
There are two characters at the dinner table: she (the cook) and he, who is ‘thinking of poison’. He doesn’t eat. She does. The effects of the fern dinner are alarming but not fatal. It’s an extraordinary story, but even more extraordinary in context.
The ‘she’ of the poem is Stevenson’s wife. They are living in Samoa. It is 1891. She has already seen Stevenson through an illness that nearly killed him. She lives with a man of uncertain health, and yet her diary entry in the notes tells us: ‘to find out whether they were poisonous or not I ate the whole dishful with an effort’. I waked up in the night with a pain in my stomach and a most deathly feeling altogether.’
Poem and note together capture an unforgettable occasion: the night Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson cooked and ate a dish of assorted Samoan ferns ‘to find out whether they were poisonous or not’. Why did she do it? Were they incredibly hungry? But the notes, like all the best poems, only take the reader so far.