Four Beginnings

Sarah Broom, Tigers at Awhitu (Carcanet Oxford Poets), £9.95, 73pp; Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Inroads (Seren), £7.99, 64pp; Adam O’Riordan, In the Flesh (Chatto & Windus) ?49pp; Sam Willetts, New Light for the Old Dark (Cape Poetry), £10.00, 55pp

There are two ways for a poet to be professional which first collections tend to throw into relief. The first is the orthodox career, in which, having acquired the necessary awards (and, increasingly, degree), then having wooed the correct mentor, residency and publisher, a debut volume appears — its voice already assured, its technique established, its unique subject matter clearly delineated. None of these are easily come by, especially at an appropriate level to make it worth acquiring them in the first place.

But the second involves a still-harder apprenticeship, following the obstinate, labyrinthine path that learning craft takes through such markers of esteem and our individual experience. Along this route concepts like ‘voice’ or ‘muse’ fall under perpetual critique and suffer challenging reform. Here the poem itself often has to be sufficient reward, one glimpse of theme must function as sustenance for years, and publication may be no more than an interim report, rather than a career-defining goal.

Our society encourages new writers towards the first challenge, while their instincts tend them toward the second. On the one hand the triumphant first steps of Eliot or Auden; on the other the initial sketches of Pound or Morgan. Publishers, in the business of second-guessing posterity, prefer the former; the media, too, is always drawn to the simpler narratives. What we see in these four first collections is a series of very different negotiations about how these poets would like to be read. Each presents a striking single subject against the backdrop of a strongly particularised style or technique.

In Sarah Broom’s work we find the terrible threat to an entire family of a terminal cancer diagnosis is set against a painstakingly sensuous depiction of what is to us an exotic landscape, using the evocative power of the list. With Caroline Jess-Cooke the superfluidity of modern identity transforms romantic myths of all sorts from Dido to the honeymoon, but underlying these metamorphoses is a setting of poetic form against fundamental identities, principally motherhood. In Adam O’Riordan’s collection, the idea of home as a fixable locus for love is submitted to a series of testing challenges, while an investigation goes on throughout as to where memory can best be positioned between landscape and the body. Sam Willetts’s work sets a clear-sighted examination of the harrowing effects of addiction against a longer perspective of often traumatic heritage.

To differing degrees, it could be argued that the primary, attention-commanding subject in each case is not always as effective as the distinctive nature of the skills working in the background.

Sarah Broom’s book opens beautifully, with a diagnosis inappropriately blurted out to a small family playing in the snow. What it is exactly does not require to be revealed at this point, the impact being shown by a focus on the youngest, least comprehending child:

So they stood there, the little one
lost in any case in this too white world,
his too cold hands stiff in his wet wool
gloves, his feet stuck somewhere
miles down below.

From here the element of threat and its counterweight, the tenderness of maternal love, is subtly developed through the first half of the book, touching on other lives yet returning to the particulars of this family group. The device it enlists most fruitfully is a kind of tender cataloguing, in which the emotional world is firmly grounded in the specifics of a New Zealand setting:

feet marked in squares from the hard cord of the trampoline…
the squish of a foot into a rotten pear,
the private impassable heat of your room in the afternoon sun…
the milky touch of the piano keys in the cool dark lounge,
the mess of bantam crap and feathers, the prickly blackcurrent bush

Interspersed in this unfolding narrative are strong poems about other mothers in other places or at other times: a Jewish woman delaying purification after birth, a sickly, doomed infant girl. A note of politicking sometimes comes into these pieces, as in the judgemental chorus to ‘Fosterling,’ or the strident close to ‘Crusades,’ either of which would be as powerful without. These are small matters of over- or under-emphasis in a collection capable of complex realisations like Jacob’s ‘it was the matted hair of his brother/that he felt on the muscled arm/of the angel…’.

A more difficult matter arises in the last third of the book, which refers explicitly to the cancer which we understand must silence this voice and separate this family. There are poems here of great delicacy and despairing restraint like ‘Hospital Property’ and ‘Not yet, not now,’ where themes of the exposed body and the fragile sanctuary of the imagination are strongly conveyed.

Arguably less successful is the title sequence in which the symbol of a female tiger is evoked as ambivalent comforter in distress. This almost allegorical beast seems to require stronger roots in preceding work, for instance the images in previous poems of lying on rocks or jetties, and it feels a long way back to an early mention of the thirsty tigers of the Sunderbans.

But if some of the imagery in the last part of this deeply-moving collection still feels fashioned more for personal use, that is equally a sign that it touches on powerful themes. The evidence is this poet has both the skills and the architectonic awareness to develop these into something still more striking.

Caroline Jess-Cooke’s work emerges from that strong school of younger Northern Irish poets, particularly women, for whom mastery of form is, wonderfully, a given. Like Leontia Flynn or Colette Bryce, she can turn out an assured sestina, here appropriately devoted to the ordeal of jet lag. There are also a couple of very convincing triolets — not something reviewers get to say often — where subtle variation has been put to striking use:

The first time I was five. An Alsation
we teased stripped a layer of skin from wrist
to elbow. It was a blind sensation
the first time. I was five, and all stations
between six and twelve were flagged with lesions
connected, somehow, to a need to be kissed
for the first time. I was five, and satiation,
wet ease, stripped a layer of skin from risk.

Here the themes of assault, tenderness, the link between childhood and myth, the shedding of a skin and the paradox of underlying continuity, are all combined in a single piece. Elsewhere they give rise to poems which revamp Orphic symbology, present abuse as a kind of music, and play wittily on the performative aspect of memory. One key piece, ‘Tourists,’ reuses Larkin’s stanza form from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ to meditate on the shifts in identity performed by the newly-wed, still visitors to the zone of marriage, which is placed between the exotic and the erotic (‘…we had jointly,/silently, agreed to take day trips/to love…’).

This last poem pinpoints an essential fact about what we must call ‘travel poetry’ which has evaded most commentators: at its best, it is not a presentation of the exotic, but rather an examination of what happens when, through technological change, the exotic becomes another type of the quotidian. Further, its adaptation of a stanza associated with a famous poem is both audacious and satisfying, indicating that every level of potential meaning, including form, is being brought into play.

Another poem uses free verse in a similarly allusive, hilariously effective manner: ‘Yesterday, I Failed’ distends its rhetoric of anaphoric utterance in a manner reminiscent of fellow Northern Irish poet Alan Gillis, who once provided a similarly ironic catalogue of terms for the male member:

I failed, like any serious attempt at oil painting in a wind machine.
I failed, but the crops did not.
I failed in a field, and filed as I fooled.
I walked right up to failure, kicked it in the shins,
and insulted its mother.

Her work is less successful (pardon my segue) when it presses its case for contemporaneity: the matching pair of pieces confronting first Aeneas and then Orpheus with the likes of Youtube and prank TV seem to make too much of their clash between the web of archaic narratives and the soon to be outmoded technologies currently on the Net, though it doesn’t help that Facebook makes its second appearance in as many pages. (I was also surprised in an earlier piece to find Odysseus tied to the mast and ‘deafened to the Sirens’ — surely he was deafened by them?)

The real triumphs in this book are the poems of motherhood in its second half. From marvellous one-liners describing pregnancy (‘I expand like a book in water’) to concise accounts of post-partum fuzziness in supermarkets (‘I dream of snoring among the onions’), to the Ciceronic ‘Defence of Multiple Handbags’, the interrogation of what underlies identity which runs through this book finds its proper focus.

Adam O’Riordan’s all too brief collection concerns itself in more than one sense with points of focus, frequently meditating on single snapshot moments, teasing out what the static image really captures of the lives it interrupts. This is a poetry which loves the indefinite article, favouring its combination of singularity and provisionality over the harder edged particularity of ‘the.’ This is illustrated by the contrast between the monolithic single word title of its opening poem, ‘Manchester,’ and the flurry of qualifiers with which this piece closes: ‘Whatever I seek to have or hold or harbour//is pure curio — a wreath of feathers, seashells/or human hair: a taxidermist’s diorama.’

From this perspective, definition always threatens to be falsification, and it is only in the casting for alternatives that something actual can be recovered. Thus in three of the four sequences which hold the collection together, ‘Vanishing Points’, ‘The Edges of Love’ and ‘Home,’ artefacts, momentary impressions and snippets of information are held up and examined from shifting perspectives. The first sequence is very much concerned with history and its loss: a photo from the thirties awaking anxiety at the same site: ‘I think of our life together becoming utterly lost,/and lift this camera like a bible for an oath.’ The second, a matching pair of sonnets, contrasts two glances, one calling forth fidelity, the other a giddy bigamous moment (‘a lifetime unfolds: waking naked in the half-light,/ smoothing her dark mane, your unborn children’s names,/your bones laid on hers in the grave…’).

There is an implicit theme of marriage or at least of linkage, implied by the language or perspective of many of these poems, from the wedding talk of ‘have or hold’ to that bible raised, possibly for vows, possibly for testimony, to the ‘”Nothing”‘ that is said to a wife at the end of ‘The Edges of Love’. This is examined most thoroughly in ‘Home,’ a twelve poem sonnet sequence ending with a single couplet, the most thematically ambitious unit here. Written during a fellowship at the Wordsworth Trust, it pairs vignettes of Dorothy and William Wordsworth with sonnets addressed to a series of unidentified ‘you’s that echo or critique the oddities of their life together, tugging a familiar story into unfamiliar shapes as though trying to unsettle our convictions, and return the famous siblings to being a brother and sister.

This is obliquely evident in the movement from ‘A Double Wash Stand’ to ‘Dun Laoghaire’. In the first of these, ‘Before the age condemned such joint ablutions’ the brother and sister wash together, their actions reflected by the geese landing in the lake: ‘You mime the mannerisms of other lives/like brother and sister; I mean, man and wife.’ In the second, a naked man being sketched in the drawing school is also compared to an animal, though here he’s seen as ‘turning like a hare on a spit…’. Just as the siblings’ actions seem not entirely innocent, so his appear to contain an undefined guilt, ‘blowing in your fist/to elongate the frail gourd of your cock and balls/…like a sinner at the centre of a circle formed for prayer.’

O’Riordan’s wariness about the too-settled image can sometimes come across as a species of lack of commitment. There are a few pieces where the reader may feel thrown for, by example, a sudden change of pronoun or times at which they may experience difficulty in assigning the subject of the second person address favoured throughout. For instance the final poem, ‘Pallbearers,’ has a wonderfully elegiac opening address

No stranger to crematoria
but still shocked so small
a casket could contain you,
your thirty thousand days…

Here the ‘you’ is surely identified at the outset of the second stanza: ‘My grandmother a frail bird/on the lip of an open cage…’ but then the poem refers to ‘the cluster of foxgloves/taken from her garden’ — and a distancing if not an uncertainty creeps in with the shift to ‘her’. The poem feels like at one point it was a single more integrated sentence, and that small ambiguities have crept in with its subsequent division.

When O’Riordan turns to more definitive gestures, however, he achieves effects which belie this slightly evasive technique. There is a strong trio of love poems, ‘Cheat’, ‘On Fixing a Bloody Mary’ and ‘Oysters,’ which use the power of instruction and definition, not to mention the abiding link between food and sex, to good ends, and a fine example of the short poem as conceit in ‘My Father in the Garden’:

A shy man but
a showman in
this his quarter
acre of hemp seed
and crab apple,
of performing
arts the slowest.

One of the best poems here couldn’t be more definite in its title, ‘The Whetstone,’ or in its imagery (His scythe…/precise as a prosthetic limb’) or in its movement back through the generations (‘body rolling against a wave of corn/remote and lonely as an astronaut’). Its conclusion, in which the failure to maintain an edge leads to an apocalyptic act of self-definition, stands as an apt image for the collection as a whole, ‘to let up would surely slip

the moorings of the battered canvas sun,
dim the wattage of the harvest moon,
snuff each star in the encroaching dark,
that only in such ways might we leave our mark.

Sam Willetts’s first book contains some of the best poems I’ve read this year, though these don’t tend to be the pieces on addiction and its uncertain redemptions that a cursory glance might be directed to. It is a book written, as its afternote states, over many years, and at times it may feel like it lacks the imagistic coherence, almost at the level of the emblem, that work composed in a single period can achieve. It may be, as I felt at times with O’Riordan, that there are simply not enough poems here to achieve coherence, and that poetry’s virtue of less is more is not an inviolable law. However, I find its apparent diversity one of its most engaging qualities, and have especially enjoyed tracing those strong, sometimes unexpected links which bind the elements of this book together.

For instance, the fine ‘Anchor Riddle’ is very much a symbolic opener, with its Old English concision (‘the cold furrow I plough,/the bones that lie under…’ allied to a tang of Neruda’s Elemental Odes in

but I hold a ring, here,
best man
in the wedding of the sailor
to the sea.

It links powerfully with ‘St Columba’s Footprints,’ a poem which seems at first like notes from the wanderer, one of those peripheral pieces even the briefest collections must contain: its navigators, listening in the dark, to be aligned to Cowper’s (or Bishop’s) lost Crusoe. But there is something in that final few lines’ yielding to full rhyme that is not merely trying to dazzle: ‘at Kintyre, a saint was rowed ashore

whose weight of purpose sank heel and shoe
into the rock as if it had been snow.

Furthermore, the use of ‘sank’ links faith to anchor to descent, a motif we find in one of the strongest pieces here, ‘On the Smolensk Road,’ in which the small daughter we first see staring uncomprehendingly at jackboots in a previous poem, is revealed as the poet’s mother, now become too worldly-wise, trying to flee as Stukas dive and strafe a column of refugees:

She saw at once that her mother’s
flowered dress might be a target, so she
tried to kick, gouge, claw, thrash herself free

from the arms struggling to cover her
from the planes, to bulletproof her with love.

Against the guilty memory of the child, Willetts sets the heartless ecstasy of the pilot, questioning if he ‘felt like a young sun/firing out of the sun?’ before slewing our perspective and his syntax to match the pilot’s fury-like perspective on the mother’s dress:

…something like a blown flower
out there on the Earth as it tilted, as river
and field and the road’s small-and-many
human spillage pivoted away.

That fluency of syntax and phrase – the rapidly-bundled hyphens of ‘small-and-many’ – gives this passage an expressive descriptive force, and marks Willetts out as an exciting voice. It doesn’t always come off: the boy, ‘bored of the wrenchable grass//printing my elbows and the sun my eyes’ seems a little too contorted. But image after distinctively-phrased image does catch simultaneously at our ear and eye: whether the river where ‘chest-high to a child/the surface keeps one scar, undercurrent-marled’; or the cloud ‘a lone whim of cirrus/[that] breaks into pink’; or the magnificent variation on Marvell, ‘muttering lawn-porn in a green mental whisper’.

But the most interesting disruption of what we might think of as conventional phrasing concerns yet again the mother. In ‘Jewish Section,’ the opening few lines present a little puzzle to the grammarian:

Alive, my mother brought me here
more often, perhaps meaning to show me

how grief can find some shape in duty.

Of the course the manner in which the not-alive can (or cannot) bring us to places is not so difficult to uncover, but the guilty work has already been done by the phrasing, and the poem can conclude again with full rhyme, ‘The Jews in the yews. Forgive me.’ There is a similarly careful interaction of syntax and rhyme in the elegy for his father, ‘Trick,’ where confronting the empty shell of his father’s corpse ‘un-sons me’ and Willetts uses enjambment to make the simple sounds toll out: ‘Dad

dead; end of the opaque trick
that turns our gold to lead.

This is not to claim that all the poems exploring his ancestry are equally strong — though the description of Kazimierz in ‘Ghetto’ as being empty of a very precise series of memories is powerful (echoing Paul Kriwaczek’s sonorous description in Yiddish Civilisation of Kazimierz as depicted in Vishniac’s pre-Holocaust photographs). Nor is it to imply that the poems focussed on the losses of and recovery from addiction are lesser pieces — the symbology of birds in ‘You and St Kevin and the Birds’ and the marvellous ‘Starlings’ is compelling in the way it draws themes of persistence and the body together.

But it is to suggest that Willett’s first collection, much like the others reviewed here, succeeds when he goes his own bittersweet way, rather than in those instances that more obviously draw the eye. Poetry, in other words, is not announced by a striking subject, but revealed in the way we are struck. Thankfully, this inner resonance, this professional disturbance of our suppositions about language and its goals, is achieved by each of these four poets in a completely distinct manner.

(Published in Poetry London, Autumn 2010)

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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