i. The High Window, February 2020
Three ‘elegantly presented’ Poet’s House Pamphlets, from the Poet’s House, Oxford, reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy.
The Tyring House by Lynn Thornton is a beautifully lucid series of poems, mostly, though not entirely, based on Shakespeare’s characters and plays; there is an excursion into Greece and the classics at the end of the book. Thornton is clearly steeped in the plays and her poems are informed by her close familiarity with the texts as well as the many productions she has seen. This can be seen in ‘Lear’ where the strong visual detail suggests the theatre:
their father’s feet, tiny in kid leather, assault
to rest on
while the ‘nothing’ opening the next stanza isolates and foregrounds a key word from
I remember, when I was a teacher, how A-level classes used collectively to fall in love with Hamlet. Lynn Thornton’s Fortinbras seems also to have succumbed. The poem, despite its name, is all about Hamlet, from a hero-worshipping portrait of him as a student in Wittenberg, ‘all purpose and defiance’ to the tender final image ‘when [the light] catches
your hand/slender and white as a girl’s’. Usually, Thornton avoids such almost sentimental involvement in the characters as she explores their back stories and futures in clear-sighted language. She shows Paulina, from The Winter’s Tale, creating order and calm in the midst of chaos and heartbreak. The austere, controlled couplets mimic Paulina’s iron control over herself:
She folds linen neatly into piles
with the calmness of a nun
this is what she’s good at
this is what she’s perfected
Paulina, the agent of redemption in the play, has a role influenced by a mixture of Christianity and a more ancient magic. In the poem, she appears as an image of long-suffering but powerful womanhood. This is where Thornton’s project is most valuable.
She is not just developing her own views of various much-loved Shakespeare characters. She is using them to explore aspects of human behaviour and emotions.
In I Meant to Say Margot Myers is also an observer of human behaviour and emotions. ‘Sex Lives of Aunts’ and ‘The Conquest of Everest, 1953’ are warm, comic poems which might seem to evoke the past of the Hovis advertisements or early episodes of Call the Midwife. However, Myers’ eye for detail hints at the reality behind the fuzzy glow. She remembers the next-door neighbour she had a crush on as a little girl:
Timothy Beevers, Timmy, Tim – you are a god, descending
from the snowy sky in your pale-blue cable-knit jumper
and your lovely round head shining under the lamplight
like a golden doorknob.
However, the adult poet records the conditions her mother was working in as she ‘gropes through the sooty steam, and with no extra oxygen/gets on with stuffing the bird.’ She makes skilful use of mock heroic to create irony as she includes phrases in italics from contemporary accounts of the ascent of Everest. The bathos is reinforced even in the phrase ‘golden doorknob’, a simile which describes her hero’s head, as he climbs, not Mount Everest, but the roof of her house where the chimney is on fire.
Perhaps the prevailing characteristic of this pamphlet is the poet’s celebration of exuberance, evident in the opening ‘Bukbukbukbukbukbukbuk’ of ‘Aubade’, the first poem, in ‘My Life in Meringues’ where the final line gives the poem its title, and in ‘Buddleia’, where the ungovernable plant, ‘floozing/its purple on street corners//tagging the wall/by the bus stop…’ comes to represent the irrepressibility of life. However, the poet’s wit becomes more sardonic when she confronts the downside of the past, as in ‘Housewives’ Choice’:
My mother’s breath condensed down the walls,
her hair grew thin. She hid her sweets
deep in the sideboard drawer.
Myers is very good at being funny, even when the subject is grim (‘Your Farewell Performance in the Methodist Hall’), but her work has a depth and range which will be better served in a longer collection.
Decoding the Dark by Catherine Faulds is the most challenging of these three pamphlets, thought-provoking in the best sense. We are told that the poems developed out of a mixed media project on the theme of darkness undertaken jointly by the poet and the artist, Sarah Davidmann. They spent several weeks in Svalbard during the darkness of the Norwegian winter. Catherine Faulds is herself an artist and one can imagine these poems working well
in a gallery complemented by photographs and visual work. Some of the poems are lucid descriptions of the arctic experience, others experiment with visual and aural patterning of words devoid of syntax. The collection makes me want to ask questions. Why, for example, does the writer use the third person in ‘arrival’: ‘through the window/in the arrivals hall/she sees nothing’? Assuming this is not the description of someone else’s experience, we can speculate that the writer is trying to separate the person who was there from the artist who creates. This attempt at detachment reflects the poet’s suppression of the lyrical or subjective ‘I’ in order to honour the landscape which she is presenting. Nevertheless, I think ‘I’ would have worked equally well. In contrast, the use of third person pronouns is effectively cinematic in ‘editing’: ‘she opens the car door/…. she’s part of the story’, ‘he’s shouting he runs with a rifle/he’s entering the picture space’.
A cool, quasi-scientific gaze is achieved successfully in ‘Hecla’, ‘Pyramiden’ and ‘species of ice’. In the last she combines the technical terms for different kinds of ice with brilliantly selected epithets: the nip ice ‘takes/hold with pincer floes’ whilst shuga ice is described as ‘sharking closer’. Here, poetic exactness and creativity combine.
The decoding the dark sequence becomes increasingly convincing with rereading. I can imagine the poems projected on walls over huge photographs of arctic scenes, and I understand that they are built from contributions of words and phrases for darkness, so in that sense are almost communally authored. The second poem is particularly visually striking as it reaches forward in a bow shape and then bends back; the fourth invites an oral performance with its sequences of ever fewer syllabled words finishing with several which, at least in English, are sounds without meaning:
a an ar ra da ao de us at bid ale mo di be ro ta or in ar re an
The effect of this is to undermine the status of words that are words or to make the reader try to combine syllables into meaning. The instability of the language reflects the fragmentation of the ice and the fragility of the environment which the poet is exploring. The third in the series is particularly moving as it orders and reorders words and phrases to create effects which are suggestive, beautiful and ominous:
a coal nocturne