Hearing Eye, 2008   £3.00 - www.hearingeye.org

The poems of Mary Michaels are filled with life. By that I don’t just mean the details of the everyday world for which she has such a good eye, or her use of overheard conversation. Her poems characteristically start in one direction, and then are interrupted by something else—another voice, another subject, a different way of looking at the world. The effect is that the reader who has attuned to one register of language is made to realise that there is more to life than just that—our world is fuller, richer, stranger.

To take just one example: reading ‘Bourton Revisited’ is like being taken through a series of opening doors. We go from ambiguous behaviour in the Cotswold bird park (Is that bird fighting the other, or kissing, or feeding it?) to ambiguous behaviour in a “cold London house” (Is the young man really meditating on his aimless life or making excuses for it?). A shift from regular typeface to italics marks the change:

          a bird with wings open, stretching, neck down, towards another
          or ‘kissing’—that’s the second interpretation

          the possibility that one might be feeding the other
          only being proffered by a third party, late in the speculation

          he used to get up before dawn, he’d told her
          in the cold London house, to meditate, alone

          thinking that being thirty-five, without a proper home or a job
          or any kind of qualification, was bearable

          but not so in prospect, twenty years down the line

Then we are taken to the man of thirty-five’s opposite, an odd-job man scrupulously working long hours, “an open wound in his light blue eyes”. Maybe he is in the bird park, but anyway he is by a statue of Pan, which is answered (back in italics) by images of other carvings, of the crucifixion.

Next it’s back to Bourton, and similar “scoured clean” villages of the Cotswolds, whose neat attractiveness seems “unutterably twee.”

The last line of the poem stands on its own—

 she wonders by what sanctions this is achieved

and we realise that this is a poem about order, and its cost. The wild birds and  the young man with the wasted life show the kingdom of Pan, and indiscipline; the odd-job man and the “twee” streets hint at the costs of discipline.

The crucifixion makes everything more complex though. Is it Christ being tidied away by the centurions, or Christ as the image of suffering that unites all the people in the poem? Mary Michaels gives no obvious answers.

Probably these poems are not for everyone; some readers may be annoyed more than enthralled by the switches of voice and subject. But they are thought-provoking and strange, and Mary Michaels has a wonderful ear for the language of speech.

George Simmers