Reviewed by Jake Campbell, Christie Williamson and Niall Campbell
“I watched her dream back to Lerwick,/ her chair hollowed to fit her” announces the narrator at the beginning of ‘My Grandmother’s Grandfather’. It’s a captivating opening: ambitious in scope as well as subject matter. The notes at the back tell me Mayhew is a twenty-two-year-old student. The fact that the collection is handled with the precision and objectivity one would expect from a much older writer is testament to the strength of her vision.
Mayhew has a keen ear for sound and rhythm, employing assonance and internal rhyme to deft effect. In ‘My Grandmother’s Grandfather’, the onomatopoeia of lines like “Down on the aer,/ above the rush and kurr of the waves” lend a powerful nuance to the subject matter—not only the seascape but the speaker’s forebears are brought surging back to life through an intricate but understated balance of sound and imagery.
In ‘Pylons’, which starts promisingly, the speaker, doing “Sixty-five miles per hour and the radio detuned/ by these laced pylons”, soon begins piling up descriptions, adding “the psalm-hardening of seedpods” to “bear-traps across the skyline”. The effect here is confusing, the poem fragmenting under the weight of metaphorical overload. Even the strong couplet “the impact still booming down the A120./ Then, nothing much until the one torn wing” is hampered by a tendency toward cramming. Judicious trimming of adjectives and connectives in this and some of the other poems would, I’m sure, have allowed their central conceits more room to breathe.
At her best, Mayhew is sharp and innovative, her writing decorated with memorable phrases and punchy metre. Take the last stanza in ‘Stealing from her Garden’:
His shovel snicks the earth
around her fireweed
whittled to a winter stalk.
This is the kind of writing that excites me: pared-down but proud of its power to coerce. There are good examples elsewhere: ‘Sharp Velvet’ is really very good, taking the mundane act of eating a pomegranate and elevating it into a powerful expression of love. “I taught you how to dig your thumbnails”, we’re told, “and split the pith, peel back membrane”. Later, asleep, we see “vowels sprouting/ from your stained mouth [. . .] our tree/ nudging through earth-rind”. Surreal in its delivery, the image is powerful nonetheless, showing us a writer awake and alive to “the morning’s harvest of frost”.
Poetry is all about the things you can’t quite put your finger on. Opening Someone Else’s Photograph, and reading the poem titles, something I can’t quite put my finger on suggested Jessica Mayhew was a poet of depth and maturity.
Reading the poems reveals this to be the case, despite my surprise to learn of the author’s tender twenty-two years. Another surprise lay in wait for me in the first verse of the opening piece, ‘My Grandmother’s Grandfather’:
I watched her dream back to Lerwick,
her chair hollowed to fit her,
printing withered lips on water glasses
the shade of sand on Muckle Roe.
The publication thus promises to fuse Shetland with landlocked England. And it does so, strikingly. But the 23 pages of poetry yield a great deal more than that. We have postcards from Spain and Turkey. Cormac McCarthy, John Donne, Frida Kahlo and Edgar Allan Poe are referenced. Towards the end of the book, four poems bring Greek and Egyptian myth to life.
The writing is full of colour, light and movement. In ‘Back When We Were Bears’ “Sequinned dresses slither to the ground/ flashing like hunted salmon”. In ‘Torrevieja, 2010’ “Even the sign is bleached quiet,/ red to pink, like our eyelids in the morning.”
For me, the strongest remain those personal, heartfelt poems of family, which open and close the book. In ‘Birthday Candles’, we’re invited to imagine “a grey herring-light breaking/ over the black North Sea, your burning longboat.” This echoes the herring gutted in the opening poem, and the call at the end of it: “I’m still here. Come find me”.
During the herring boom of the 19th century, the fleet returned to the same grounds year in year out, knowing they would find fish. Someone Else’s Photograph is a great catch. The next time Jessica Mayhew publishes (which she surely will) I’ll be there to find out what’s in the net.
That last day
we found The Sheraton ourselves
past the old white lighthouse
and bitter scrub grass.
I like many of the poems in Mayhew’s first pamphlet. In fact, I like most of the poems. But what I really admire, in all of them, brilliant or slightly falling flat, is her exceptional use of line. She seems to have an innate talent for breaks and run-ons. Almost every line in this short pamphlet is taut and energised. In the above extract we have each line functioning as a divisible unit of sense, adding and complicating the image as it is unfolded. It is unshowy but stark.
Similarly, in the poem ‘Postcard from Kalkan’:
Dear heart, down this certain steep street
the pink hibiscus outlasts the afternoon glaze,
hosed water smoking from the cobbles.
Beautiful lyricism. And, again, each line solidifies and advances the image, the mood of the poem. And it is not just the line—the tercet itself is also clean and concise—a self-contained moment of the poem. A strange decision, then, for the poet to disrupt the structure by breaking the end of the poem into a couplet and a quatrain—a loud gesture in an otherwise subtle poem. But even then, there is the unit of the line to see us through:
That old sea-change; nothing destroyed or made
where across our distance, this one ship calls and calls.
The difficult things are done so well in this pamphlet—there is poise and voice—and there is such a sense of craft. At points, though, the poet seems inclined towards the flourish or linguistic firework: “Later, the pepper grinder/ rasps as ants tumble-shunt the soil” (‘Pylons’) or “a wish/ pickled in candle brine-light” (‘Birthday Candles’). But these are mainly noticeable for their rarity.
Mayhew has produced a strong first pamphlet. In craft she is right to trust.