The Siskin Press, 2009 £6.50
Reviewed by D A Prince, Karin Koller and David Floyd
D A Prince:
If I had encountered these poems as a younger woman, still full of hormones and spiritual yearnings (the two are not unrelated), I might have resonated to them at least a little. Jane Pearn is a religious poet, specifically a Christian one, and her spare, measured lines imply genuine spiritual experience.
But it’s another matter to pin that experience to the page and transmit it to the reader. As Pearn herself says in the pamphlet’s first poem, ‘There’, “Language can’t take you there. . . . You can’t ride to the words’ end/ arriving triumphant at the destination/ of some other traveller. . .”
But if you choose (if you dare)
you may grasp their silken rope
and let yourself, swaying, down
to the still point of your own convergences. . .
I’d say she’s right about that. Poems and prayers (again, not unrelated) can be a means of getting to that deep, inexpressible place.
But too many of Pearn’s poems are simple professions of faith. I often feel like I’m listening, half drowsing, to a homily in a country church, or reading a call-and-response prayer with the rest of the congregation: “What we had taken for darkness was the shadow./ So close we were, so close, we could not see/ the immeasurable god casting over us its shade…” (‘Encounter’). It’s comforting, if you’re comforted by that sort of thing, but I don’t think that’s what Pearn is going for.
Part of the problem lies in her churchy diction: those prayerbook rhythms, and her frequent use of a didactic second-person or first-person-plural voice. But for me, the greater problem is that Pearn often substitutes a loving retelling of church teachings for genuine insight. In ‘Meditation’, she considers the lilies of the field, and then moves on to the parable of the seeds, and then considers the raindrop that falls “when it must,” finally declaring, “Truly—the seed, the raindrop—understanding nothing,/ they understand everything.” Prompting this reader to shout back at the page, No, they don’t!
And yet. Pearn is able to use familiar sounding allegory in a compelling way. (“At first the way to the soul is broad and grassy. But the nearer she comes, the harder we make it.”) She is capable of conveying the miraculousness of everyday moments. She has written a genuinely touching poem about Tuol Sleng, the notorious Cambodian prison. And she knows what she needs to become a true poet of the spirit:
Pray for doubt. In the noon-glare
of certainty nothing flourishes, faith withers. . .
Pray for doubt for me, and for all who are certain.
This well-produced pamphlet of 56 poems comes in a grey binding with an elegant cover design, the poems themselves printed on calming pale grey paper. But as we all know, what really matters is the quality of the writing inside. It pains me to be critical of what is clearly a heart-felt body of work, sold in aid of a very worthwhile cause—clearing landmines in Cambodia.
I so hoped for more—but poem after poem is announced with a weighty title unsustained by the poem itself. In ‘Encounter’ I’m told there is “An immense, lightless, weightless burden on the air./ We were seized speechless./ Wrenched into a new understanding/ we were hollow with fear, unbreathing.”
In ‘Impasse’ I’m told “We are ourselves our own obstacle;/ we, the destination and the hindrance./ Dreading what we need, craving what we fear,/ we hedge ourselves about with a fence of thorns.” For all the worthiness of the philosophical content, I’m left feeling lectured at—and I’m one of those stubborn people who don’t like being told what I should be feeling or believing.
God (or god) features in many of the poems, and interestingly in female form in a few, though I’m not won over by their central argument that humans and this female god are constantly striving to find each other. When I read poetry I want to be surprised, I want to be made to think more deeply, but in Pearn’s poems there are very few references to anything I can identify with.
If you’re allergic to well-worn phrases, this collection needs a health warning: “a shaft of dancing light”; “daffodils gold heads trembling in the cutting wind”; “deeper than any words could ever say” to give a few examples.
However, while the bulk of the collection is made up of erstwhile poems informed by deeply held (Christian) beliefs, occasionally there is a hint of something different. A small appetiser that makes me hungry for more.
In ‘Truth’, for example, Pearn likens truth to “perfect quiet snow dropped from a silent sky” through which “life left its dirty footprints,/ trampled on our truth;/ turning what we came here knowing/ to complicated gritty slush.” I could have done without the trampling on truth, but the image of complicated gritty slush made me sit up, and that’s what good poetry should do. I may not agree with the poet, but my mind’s been brought sharply to attention.
In the straightforward descriptive poem ‘In Deep’, a 4-year-old shouts proudly as they tread water out of their depth and the adult wades towards the child “knee deep, smiling,/ arms outstretched./ So you are I said/ So you are.” This poem tells me more about the continuity of love and trust than any number of poems called ‘Love’ or ‘Trust’ could do. I’m literally ‘in deep’ with the poet here, and completely engaged.
This pamphlet is impressively designed and produced but maybe not impressively enough to sell for £6.50. This is one of several ways that Further To almost succeeds but then somehow doesn’t.
The titles of three of the first six poems are single abstract nouns: ‘Truth’, ‘Encounter’ and ‘Sympathy’. That sets the reader up to enjoy what Pearn does best—exploring ideas in a non-specific way.
The collection is brimful with ideas and thoughtful contemplation. ‘Encounter’ is about discovering a god once a belief in a capital ‘G’ God has gone:
What we had taken for darkness was the shadow.
So close we were, so close, we could not see
the immeasurable god casting over us its shade
standing between us and its own uncreated light.
The poet uses simple images powerfully and effectively, and explores some complicated universal themes in an accessible biblical style. For example, ‘When it comes’ is a poem about the moment of death and the things left undone:
It may be shockingly sudden—an abrupt
fall of darkness—snatching you
on your way from or to, catching you
deciding, or wondering whether.
Around half of Further To is made up of similarly meditative poems without much external subject matter. In these poems, most of the ideas are well worked out but success is undermined by predictable imagery, from ‘Impasse’ with its “brambles of doubt” and ‘Maybe’ with its “winding sheets made of regret and love” to the “pillar of silence” in ‘Silent’; such comparisons lean towards the predictable and pedestrian.
Where things go wrong, though, is with an ill-advised detour into socially conscious poetry. The poet should be applauded for the fact that proceeds from sales of the book go towards clearing landmines in Cambodia but that doesn’t make ‘Curious Object in the Grass’, work any better as poetry:
And her world explode in a dizzying sickness
of blood and mud, of stones and splintered bones,
the tearing of soft flesh.
And then, the screaming.
Will we hear her screams
as we mow our sunny, Saturday lawns?
There are some beautiful protest songs with cliché-ridden, brick-subtle, guilt-tripping lyrics but for a poem, alone and exposed on a page, these elements are both artistically disastrous and highly unlikely to encourage the reader to question their existing position on the subject.
But caring about the victims of landmines is a honourable reason to write a bad poem and Further To, with some drawbacks, is a decent pamphlet.