Reviewed by James Roderick Burns, Ross Kightly and Fiona Sinclair
James Roderick Burns:
This is a curiously riven book. At almost its exact mid-point, and with no prompting, the succession of long and rather breathy ‘and and and’ list poems that the editor presented first gives way to a number of highly innovative, energetic and first-class pieces of work. It is very odd. On page 15, ‘Matriline’ adds great-grandmother’s dresses, silks and dusty memories to a contemporary listing of dress accessories-as-emotional-markers, taking up a full page; then, overleaf, ‘Wildeor’ bursts from the page in a howl of pagan misery and ecstasy. ‘A Search for Eternal Life’ follows, blending a singular concrete approach (physical elements on the left, spiritual on the right) with tender and startling observations on the interplay of choice and fate. ‘Song for the Severn’ is next, accompanied by similarly deft illustrations by Steve Larder, then ‘Thalassa’, which is worth quoting in its entirety and needs no comment:
You are shaped by laughter
from time and tides;
you gather storms, you dance driftwood,
you sigh and sing.
Your eyes are blue bottle glass,
your skin golden sand with shells for toenails;
your hands are birds at sunset, your hair a net for fishes.
This is simply lovely.
And yet—and yet! ‘Wyld’, the opening poem, meanders over a full two pages—seventeen stanzas—without, as it seems to me, saying or doing much of any note. ‘Fall of Snow’ does the same, albeit at shorter length. ‘I Put Away Childhood Things’ has a similar feel, and an odd truncated ending which doesn’t so much tail off as stop abruptly in mid-sentence. It is hard indeed to reconcile the first and second halves of the book, though its illustrations do link both in their woodsy hatched feel and high quality.
This reviewer, for one, is not sure what to make of it.
Apart from remarking that this is another beautifully produced article, with all the boxes of elegance ticked, the important thing about it is that it offers a predominantly outdoor experience. Of the 15 poems it contains, only one—'Matriline'—has an indoor setting, and even then, there is a strong feeling that the poet might at any moment put on her Grandmother's “A-line Sixties wedding dress” and head outside to dance in the street, or more likely, head out of town and go for a long walk up hill and down dale in that “Edwardian/ hand-stitched cloth as fine as butterfly wings”.
The other 14 poems are packed, as Mark Goodwin comments in the preface, with “wild birds and animals, beings from Greek and Celtic mythology, a host of rivers singing, and subconscious woods.”
There’s much richness of texture and language here, as one stanza from 'Wyld' will help to explain:
Morning swim: carried naked and playful
by the ice-lick current, we flick and flow.
Afterwards we are tireless, shimmering.
Though there’s zest and powerful enthusiasm here, there’s sometimes also a strong sense of loss, both personal and more universal. From 'Missing'—
the note you left on the table read:
Life is double glazed, panes of glass
with spaces between which we sometimes fall into.
'Lost Lands' is about just that: among others, “Lethowstow, Cantref Gwaelod, Ker-Ys, Lomea and Lyonesse/ taken by the sea” and, at the end, the appearance and disappearance in 1831 and 1832 of the “volcanic/ island of Ferdinandea”.
There’s a lot to like in this little volume, and nothing I can see that isn’t enjoyable in some way. When you add the five exquisitely-detailed line illustrations by Steve Larder, it’s a real value-for-money job!
The Lost Lands of the collection’s title do not simply refer to mythical Avalon and Atlantis but also come to represent the countryside of the narrator’s memory. There are poems that are obviously situated in the persona’s childhood, for example ‘Fall of Snow’ where father and child “walk to cut our Christmas tree late in the day”. Others, which seem on first reading to recount more recent events, have in their old- fashioned details (“At Symonds Yat, ice-cream and tea”) a feel of walking tours in the 50s or 60s. The key seems to lie in the fact that, despite a rural childhood, the central character now lives in the city. Consequently such holidays, recalled in an urban landscape, become elevated to almost mythological status.
Several poems, such as ‘Wyld’ and ‘Distant Stars’, end with the threat of a city that “burns its furnace light into the sky”. These brief but dark hints of urban life and the modernity it represents are in stark contrast to the countryside, which is described in loving and sensual detail. Whilst the city generally presents a threat at some distance in most poems, in ‘Wyld’ it intrudes on the countryside when “Fighter jets tear overhead”, the word “tear” effectively evoking the violent potential of the aircraft.
Yet the narrative voice seems somewhat contradictory, at once loving the countryside but always returning to the city. An explanation is offered in ‘Matrilline’, where a recollection of a mother and daughter examining a great-grandmother’s wedding dress ends with the telling lines:
I chose a different life to them,
Went to the city, made my way
Without a child, without a man;
And here I stand, no dress of mine.
It’s difficult to determine whether the character is happy with her decision. On one level, the intense memories of the natural world may serve, like Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, as a restorative in her city life. Yet since this urban existence is never fully described, the emotional pull throughout the collection seems to be away from the city and towards the countryside, even if only in terms of holiday.
This need to escape is reinforced in the striking poem ‘Missing’, where a mother, overwhelmed by the constraints of domestic and suburban life, simply abandons her family for the freedom of “searching for places stumbled on in stories by lone wanders and legendary drunks”. Similarly the narrator of poems such as ‘Mermaids’ and ‘Waterline’ finds freedom in natural landscapes: “I walked a blank white page between scarred headland”. The first-person narrator here is alone but never lonely, managing for a brief while to be “called to wander the earth”, always with the intimation that at some stage she will “board the bus to Gloucester”.