Calder Wood Press, 2010 £3.50
Reviewed by Rob A Mackenzie and Charlotte Gann:
(one of the three review copies disappeared in the post en route to a reviewer—apologies)
Rob A Mackenzie:
Evident from this pamphlet is the quiet strength of its author, her honesty about life’s struggles while not allowing them to overcome her, especially an encroaching loss of sight. “A migrant in an unlit land/ I’ll learn new ways of being rich”, she says in ‘New Vistas’, and this determination shines through her poetry.
‘Like a Cathedral’ depicts a seed buried beneath a cathedral’s foundation stone. Centuries later, when the cathedral is a ruin, the tree begins to grow, and becomes tall and majestic. People say that “it looks/ like a cathedral”, and the poem’s central metaphor—apparent ruin nevertheless contains the seed of its own renewal and fresh growth—is central to many of these poems.
This is an uplifting book, unusual enough for a poetry collection these days to merit comment, and it contains some good poems. However, while its plain style works well to create a sense of mystery or imbalance, there are poems, such as ‘Branded’ and ‘These Hills’, whose reflections felt routine and unremarkable. In addition, I kept finding an excess of unnecessary detail and a tendency to explain the obvious. In ‘Tapping’, a stick taps in the darkness and children hearing it from their rooms are gripped by a primordial fear. It’s a great pretext for a poem, and the ending where the tapping continues “in the frightened mind/ long after it has ceased” is strong, but there’s too much meandering about beforehand:
.......That stick – is it
.......a tool for seeing
.......and only that?
.......Is it a weapon?
.......Or, perhaps worst,
.......a symbol of difference
Much better, I think, to let the tapping haunt the reader’s mind and ask its own questions. When an unidentified “you” holds the stick and yet also feels “the fear, the terror/ that the concept conjures up”, I felt Mercedes Clarasó had lost control of her own poem.
The tendency to write too much also applied to some endings, which were mere summations. ‘Leopard’ is a well-written sonnet depicting an invisible leopard which walks through life with us, our “gift from the Gods”. The poem closes:
Its task is not to punish, but to teach
using the needles it holds in its paw.
With fierce commitment and with well-matched stride,
Pain is the leopard that walks at your side.
Why spell things out in this way, even giving the answer to the riddle in the final line? No one could possibly read the poem and not have worked it out before then. The thing is, Clarasó’s best work comes when poems resonate in the heart and haunt the mind rather than being closed off by over-explaining. The title poem resonates, as do ‘Lullaby for a Lover’ and ‘Awakening’, and the mysterious ‘Pillar’, which appears out of nothing in the haze, is a place of prayer, “shines implausibly”, and yet “they say/ there’s nothing there.”
It’s funny this collection is called Setting Out—so many of the poems in it feel more about an approaching end, not imminent, but not so distant as to be forgotten. ’Circling’, for instance, reads:
.......It’s not the great black vulture
.......with its sombre wings
.......that hovers over me.
.......A milder creature flies
.......between me and the sun.
There’s lots of light, colour and shade in this collection. “When he left he switched the colours off”, Mercedes Clarasó writes in ‘Revival’, “and took the backbone out of the straight lines”. Straight lines seem to represent something important. Increasingly, as the collection progresses, we get a sense of what, and why, that might be. ‘More Twilight’ starts: “More twilight now/ more twilight day by day./ Objects and colours fade/ blue turns to green/ and green degrades to grey.”
With this sense of failing sight comes a loss of sharpness or appetite too: “Books will no longer/ yield their treasures up—/ the print is fainter and/ the pages tinged with/ desolating grey.” This “desolating grey” seems very powerful to me, and the way these lines end on the weaker words “up”, “and”, “with”, itself echoes a corrosion at the edge of things, the fraying of straight lines.
Clarasó’s theme of creeping blindness recurs in a number of her poems: ‘Dipped Headlights’ (“You feel you ought to be/ on full beam/ but you/ can’t find the switch”); ‘Fading light’ (“They lack precision now/ those lines that ran so straight./ They wobble, undecided,/ fade away towards the edge”); and the slightly nightmarish ‘Tapping’, which starts “The stick is tapping/ along the lane/ that leads to midnight.”
The poems in this pamphlet have an arresting simplicity and sincerity. The poetry involves, perhaps, a little more ‘telling than showing’ than a purist might wish. However, the poet speaks with the authority, and perhaps irreverence, of age, and this in itself makes her well worth listening to.
She’s also looking for redemption in a situation—and that, too, compels. The pamphlet ends with the poem ‘New Vistas’, where Clarasó writes: “I have to memorise the grace of cats/ and store up sunsets”. By searching for the positive in pain, Clarasó brings us graciously full circle—back to her opening an