Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Calder Wood Press, 2009   £4.50
Sphinx six and a half stripes
Reviewed by Sue Butler,  Helena Nelson and James Roderick Burns  

Sue Butler:
Mary Jane Wilde spent her early childhood in India—a place that pervades many of her poems. But wherever and whatever she’s writing about, death seems to stand behind her, looking over her shoulder, saying softly, Don’t forget to mention me.

In ‘Untouchable’, someone mixing dung with straw for fuel, talks of the scant payment they get from their overlords and how “My shadow cast upon their path brings ill-luck”. They continue:

     Vultures circle above
     day in day out
     wait for my death,
     not shun this meat.

Clearly vultures are not put off by social status.

Then there’s the caterpillar turned chrysalis of an Elephant Hawk-Moth, who was put in a matchbox and taken on the train to Bombay and the ship to Liverpool as Mary Jane Wilde’s family left India for home, somewhere “cold/ shocked and racked by war now over.” It dies and

     We had a ceremony on deck.
     You were wrapped in cotton wool,
     a plastic rose glued to your box.
     Commander King said words.
     We buried you at sea.

And in ‘October Afternoon’, after describing dust in sunlight she says:

     In time I shall be this quiet dust
     I will rest on a bed of dust
     and trace the sun’s path [. . . ]

But throughout this pamphlet, in the midst of death we are in life (to misquote the Book of Common Prayer).

In ‘Chant for the Green Man’ a felon “swings/ from an oak in the forest”, but the acorn that gets lodged in his belly begins to grow and “flesh and bones/ change to green growth”. In ‘Bone Woman’, when “the lion and the cat are hunted out,/ the water tainted, fish dead” the woman collects wolf bones, lights a fire and sings until “the bones are slowly fleshed, furred [ . . . ] the wolf breathes.”
 
There is also a lot of violence. The monkeys in the house, the pony being beaten. These poems aren’t afraid to expose life’s underbelly.

However, if I have a concern about these poems it’s that Wilde sometimes doubts her own skill. She tells us what she’s about to describe or, having described something, tells us what she’s described. It’s a small point, but in a collection called Words, Words, Words, sometimes fewer words would definitely have made these already powerful poems, even more effective.

In ‘Lares et Penates’, Jane Mary Wilde speaks of the phantoms of her past:

     I cannot hustle them away,
     disperse them like smoke;
     they are part of me,
     intimate as skin, deep as bone.

This is great news for us as readers, because it is what her poems are made of.

Helena Nelson:
Memory is a wonderful source and Jane Mary Wilde draws on it generously. The poet moves between India, Scotland, Germany, England and Croatia, evoking potent atmosphere. There’s an unusually wide range of voices too: we share not only the author’s first person viewpoint but many others. There’s the point of view of an ‘untouchable’ in India, a pony who calls its owner a ‘Traitor’, a group of marauding monkeys, the Green Man, the Green Woman, the spirits of the dead, Dr Victor Sorapure. So there’s plenty of variety. This is a genuinely interesting set of poems.

This range of perspectives, however, seems to me both a strength and a weakness. When changing viewpoint, the different voices need wholly to convince and to me Wilde was not always successful in this. For example, I enjoyed much about ‘Monkeys on a hot tin roof’ but somehow wasn’t convinced the first-person narrators sounded like monkeys (whatever monkeys, if they could talk, would sound like): “The monsoon is late again. / Our paws burn and blister; we dance the cancan, bark and yowl/ to ease the pain.” In ‘The Doctor’, on the other hand, there were moments of direct speech where I had the strong sense of a real person: “Your great sickness is a piece of the repairing world.” That’s not something anyone would say. It’s something this man, this unusual doctor, said.

Wilde rings the changes of poetic form too. There’s lots of free verse but also two highly-structured, rhyming sonnets (‘Memories of India’ and ‘Green Man’). I wanted to like these. They are, like much of Wilde’s writing, truly evocative, but they’re also very complicated and sometimes I lost the sense of where the thought was going, largely because of the complex sentence structure. Both, interestingly, end one sentence and start another in the middle of line 5. Both move into the volta with a ‘But’ and an imperative in line 9. Both have a single-sentence sestet and both, to some extent, focus on time and timelessness. ‘Green Man’ breaks its penultimate line on what must be, I think, a hyphenated word, but it looks like a dash: I was confused. I wanted something simpler and clearer which would allow the poet to play more effectively to her strengths.

I found this in ‘Bone Woman’ and ‘October Afternoon’. In the first of these the language is simpler, as is the sentence structure, so the unusual narrative unfolds powerfully. In the second, the poet reflects on her own mortality. She allows the nouns to do their work, the sound of the quiet verbs to make her point. This is good writing:

     Dust settles on cushions on windowsills,
     makes a path for sunlight to fall on the floor,
     settles on the bed, the table,
     in cracks and corners of the room.

     In time it becomes the room,
     no longer settling but possessing,
     dust on dust under dust.


James Roderick Burns:
This short collection is a strange but interesting beast.  Developing three themes over 25 poems—memories of Indian childhood, later-life meditations and exploration of nature’s sinister pagan dimension—it succeeds most where we might not expect it. In poems exploring traditionally negative subjects (death, afterlife, the soulless combat of the natural world) the poet’s voice lifts into lyrical power. In those poems mulling over childhood, and especially an alien culture seen through its lens, that voice seems to deflate, almost to run out before it has begun.

Take a poem such as ‘Chant for the Green Man’. The green man in question is not an obscure fertility figure but a very present, rotting criminal:

     A felon swings
     from an oak in the forest
     rains wash
     the filth from him
     crows peck
     the eyes from him
     sun kindles
     maggots in the sockets

The poem builds in this incantatory manner to a chilling conclusion. After animal attack and the degeneration wrought by the seasons, “an acorn lodged in his belly/ sends out shoots/ flesh and bones/ change to green growth”. Wilde manages a plangent, almost hopeful note in this conclusion, and the idea of metamorphosis is shared by many of the more affecting pieces. Prior to Actaeon’s being ripped apart by his own hounds in ‘Actaeon and Artemis’, for example, we are treated to an almost cinematic scene of transformation as radiant as its subject matter is perverse:

     Antlers split his skull,
     new limbs thrust through his limbs,
     hooves swell from his feet
     deer pelt thickens on his skin.

Nor does the subject matter need to be graphic for this potency to emerge.  ‘October Afternoon’, a study in time, dust and sunlight worth including in its entirety, brings focused calm to the idea of extinction:

     Dust settles on cushions on windowsills,
     makes a path for sunlight to fall on the floor,
     settles on the bed, the table,
     in cracks and corners of the room.

The grace and studied density of such work makes the comparative looseness of other poems puzzling. ‘Elephant Hawk-Moth Caterpillar’, taking two pages to detail the journey of a chrysalised caterpillar from India to Merseyside, proceeds charmingly but ends in repetition:

     Just before we docked in Liverpool
     we had a ceremony on deck.
     You were wrapped in cotton wool,
     a plastic rose glued to your box,
     Commander King said words.
     We buried you at sea.

Similarly, ‘Monkeys on a Hot Tin Roof’ tells a tale of simian invasion concluding with the monkeys rousted, but we don’t learn much beyond the baggy story itself. It is almost as though the poet needs the harshness of mortality to spark her best work; in two-thirds of the collection, at least, this is what brings it out, and ultimately what finds light in the darkness. Overall the book is well worth reading, for many of the best poems resonate with lived experience, sharply e