Water Flag Press, 2009 £5.00
available from the author at Downs Farm, Homersfield, Harleston, Norfolk IP20 0NS
Reviewed by Paul Lee, George Simmers and D A Prince
Collections such as this need several readings before some semblance of possible intentions and meanings offer themselves to you, though the title, I think, offers a clue. This is because so many of these poems are so spare and elliptical that a first impression takes them as light and simplistic, which they are not.
Their minimalism is matched by the book itself: it’s unusual to see poems islanded by so much white space, and positioned differently from page to page. The realisation of how these two factors affected my perception of the poems was startling and, well, epiphanic. For that alone, I would have been glad I persisted with the book, which is as elegantly minimalist in production as the poems themselves in writing.
As for the poems as poems, at the risk of the derision of the poet, I was unclear whether they were a thematically linked sequence, or the more usual salmagundi ‘linked’ by the equally usual poetic concerns and obsessions.
Either choice seemed to work, and damn it all, as a poet myself, surely I could live with ambiguity and ambivalence? Well of course I could. And there are a lot of water words in the poems, or words connected with water, or liquids at least, so maybe that is the thread. And you might think Lizzi Thistlethwayte doesn’t live within four walls, like nearly all of the rest of us.
The poems are the kind whose intentions and methods gain my sympathy and respect, without quite gaining my enthusiasm, which is not to say I disliked them. I did find some of their language over-compressed and awkward—“gull-weep”, for example, and “echt-mute”, “skyward-turned” and “altar-quiet”—a compounding practice I personally find lazy. The poem’s titles are also sometimes a little offhand, as in ‘Be It Thus’ or ‘No, Solemnly’, or lazily colloquial, as in ‘A Mother-Daughter Thing’, whose delicately resonant lines deserved better than the misleading irony of their title:
lay gold over bole
moth-bright in its delicacy
a thumb-smudge of blue
on each wing
Are your pockets full of nutmeg and medlar?
Do you carry a spare violin string?
I think Lizzi Thistlethwayte’s pockets must be full of such oddments and oddities; her poems certainly are. Many of the more effective are thin strings of small apprehensions trickling down the page. Sometimes, as in [untitled] we are offered what seem to be notes that might possibly be worked up into a poem, but the work hasn’t actually been done on them yet.
This poet likes the sound of words (“sleech”, “bole”, “squit”) but perhaps she doesn’t always listen carefully enough to what she has written. The poem ‘Mirror’, for example, has the nice idea of making the second half play the first half backwards:
I put on my face
I brush earth off the celery
I make honey-toast.
That is pleasant enough, but when it is reversed you get: “I brush earth off the celery/ I put on my face”. Was the suggestion of vegetable cosmetics intended? Or is this evidence that making a poem involves more than stringing together evocative words and images?
The pamphlet is attractively produced, on good paper.
D A Prince:
Lizzi Thistlethwayte’s beautiful pamphlet lives up to its title: no contents list, no biographical details, no distraction of photographs. The cover is plain red, with the title large and the poet’s name so small it would be easy to miss it. It is stitched with red thread, the knot perfectly tied.
Inside, the poems are allowed plenty of space on the page, and this suits their spare delicacy. There is nothing superfluous here. We are given images, not explanations. These are private poems, on a private journey, and we are expected to trust the poet to lead us—and I do.
The opening poem, ‘Holy basin’, begins “I am alone with the sea a long while” and presents us with the holiness, water and light that will continue (in different combinations, and in varying scale) throughout the whole collection. Water may come as rain, or sea, or snow, and it is redemptive. Behind these poems there is physical pain, unnamed and unspecified, and all the more powerful for that: as readers we can concentrate on the images of redemption that are the heart of the collection. The pain might be a birth—or not; what matters is that we share the journey onward to the mystical final ‘No map’, in which prayer and a “strange flight” might make us angels. The journey has included the exotic:
You pull me: your eyes, your strange hat
as if travelled into the city by camel.
Are your pockets full of nutmeg and medlar?
It’s unexplained, but memorable because of the matched precision of the image and language.
This is a pamphlet to live with, slowly. It unwraps its layered meanings over time, and many readings, and for me this makes it deeply satisfying. It’s a world away from the quick-hit poems that explain everything on the surface. It is a part of the continuum of English mysticism and pale landscape that is ignored because it is no longer fashionable, but which still survives because we all need a spiritual element. I liked it very much.