It is difficult to write about big subjects without recourse to the abstract, and so Wendy Pratt’s first full collection is especially impressive given that its overwhelming interest is death. Pratt eschews abstraction first by rejecting mere ideas or notions as germs for poems, and secondly by refusing to remove – to abstract – differing modes of experience from the whole. All is of a piece. The mind, for example – distinctly abstract – gives way to the skull, as in “the skulls of students” (‘After the Digging is Done’) being filled with books and lectures about the mesolithic lake people of Starr Car.
Had I been the editor of this book I may well have insisted on calling it ‘Bones’, for the bone is a recurring symbol that seems to unite these poems. There are cheek bones, vole skulls, thigh bones, horse bones, vertebrae, deer skulls, bones of trees, little bones, bones of this and bones of that, even a whalebone corset – suggesting linkage, permanence, connection, strength, timelessness. The past inhabits the present in Wendy Pratt’s world – it “smoulders” (‘A64’) as peat smoulders.
The poet populates the quotidian with the mythic, conflates the inside with the outside –there is no Cartesian distinction as between body and mind: they are one. Words too inhabit the same intensely physical world: they “tangle / in the strawberries and weeds” (‘First Words’). Pratt promotes a kind of modern pantheism, in which everything is connected. In ‘Jesus of Nazareth Walks on Water’ the god “walks / to the boat, rests a human hand upon the wood”; in ‘Horse Singing’ “a universe can exist / in the dull thump / of a hoof”.
Nor is it only the human that is given personhood: wine “scampered / up and down my veins” (‘Driving Dangerously’), there is an ode to a polythene bag – “we’ve shared / our half-truths, bag” (‘Bag’), the poet’s mother’s bicycle is “No longer plagued by the intense futility / of age” (‘Black Beauty’); the landscape has “vertebrae” (‘Over Saddleworth Moor’). It isn’t a one way process: people are given planthood. They “intertwine / like tree roots” (‘It is Only Lunch’), wrists link like vines (‘The First Mrs Rochester’), the poet herself becomes “driftwood” (‘Raven Hall’).
Wendy Pratt gives life to everything, even as death undoes everything, including the poet’s child. The most moving poems in this collection are in a section entitled ‘The Unused Room’, and I hesitate to write about them, except to say that sad as they are, Wendy Pratt has succeeded in giving meaning to a life hardly lived. And even in these poems the felt is more important than the thought. In ‘The Blessing’ the childless mother feels “despair / balling up like a piece of stale bread / in my throat”. The mundanity of the image is shocking, but what it achieves is immediate connection. The reader is forced into the scene. I think this is very good poetry.
Museum Pieces is full of ghosts and hauntings (and a witch, the poems about which I have reviewed elsewhere – see Nan Hardwicke <http://www.wynnwheldon.com/search/label/Wendy%20Pratt> ), and, as poetry is perhaps haunted to some degree by Ted Hughes, another poet for whom the sacred and the mundane inhabited the same space, for whom the imagination was a tool not a toy.
Much of contemporary poetry is mere reflection, gobbets of prose in effect. Wendy Pratt does something only proper poetry can do: to make associations and connections across acres of symbol and image and idea, to address the most common of all subjects, death, provoking not only thought but also feeling. Fiction lures us into another world, but Pratt’s poetry invites us to explore our own, not factually, in the way of prose, but by way of the imagination. She is, in this sense, a kind of Coleridgean romantic. These ‘museum pieces’ are anything but. Death may be Wendy Pratt’s great subject, but her poetry throbs with “the rhythm of blood”, turning lived experience into vivid art.
In order for this not to sound like the rantings of a Prattitioner, I would add that I think the collection might have done with a little editing, and I am not sure it needed to be divided into sections (there are seven in all). Two of these sections, namely ‘A Box of Teeth and Claws’ and ‘The Cabinet of Hearts’ might have been excised completely, not because their poems are inadequate but because they are not quite so thematically coherent. Having said that, there is one poem, about love and death, which elicited from this reader a gulping sob at its last phrase, and deserves anthologizing by whomsoever compiles the next book of love poems. It is called ‘Shoe Trap’, and it is loving, as all Wendy Pratt’s poems seem to be, in a very particular, robust and inimitable way.
Flint arrow heads spilled like lost teeth,
found again, drawn up through the black
peat. They surfaced so often against
the shear side of a spade or beneath
the soft sole of a Wellington boot,
that they became common: a currency
in the playground; pocketed
with leaf skeletons and vole skulls;
our own histories marked out
along the chipped edges. And later,
at the official dig, deer skull hunting-masks
rose from the forgotten lake bed.
Glimpsed through the billow
of a white plastic tent they eyed us
with unwitting curiosity, watching
the new world; their faceless mouths
In the dark I grope across the bedroom
floor, feel for the shape of the wall, the door
and half trip, half step over your work shoes.
Shoe trap. Your favourite trick, four
shoes, haphazardly strewn,
your habit. My habit is the stumble, the meeting
of floor and face, the standard bruise
to the knee. Your shoe trap has held me captive
for thirteen years, swearing in the dark on my way
to the bathroom. Your habits and mine; a dance,
a meeting of selves over and over. The day
after my sister loses her husband to cancer,
I trip on your shoes in the dark, holding their scrubby,
battered shape, I’ve never felt so blessed or lucky.
Museum Pieces by Wendy Pratt is published by Prolebooks, 85pp, £6.50. Order your copy here.
Looking for Larkin is the first full length collection of Jules Smith’s poetry. Handsomely produced, it also contains a sequence of photographs by Dan Lyons which capture some of the monuments, wharves and streets of ‘Larkinland’ in and around Hull. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a poet who has been widely published since the early eighties, this is the first substantial gathering of his work. In ‘the Barefoot Bride’, which opens the collection and is placed alongside a shot of Pearson Park, Smith beautifully distils the influence of his master. Addressing a beloved with the Larkinesque endearment of ‘Darling’, he then describes a bride and wedding group in terms which are clearly intended to echo ‘The Whitsun Weddings’:
She trailed her ivory, wind-ravelled train
across the road to greet guests warmly,
colours sun-mingled as in a kaleidoscope .
Like the protagonists in many of Larkin’s poems, Smith is an outsider looking on, his ‘incline towards the curves of their talk / distanced by not knowing the family.’ Having described the stock figure of the best man sitting ‘on a low wall / like Humpty Dumpty, flirting with women’, he brings the poem to its conclusion with a quietly effective image which rings the changes on the fertility theme which is also important in Larkin’s poem: ‘Behind them all, the garden. Freshly dug.’
In ‘Looking for Larkin’, the collection’s title poem, Smith’s elusive eminence grise actually becomes his subject. Accompanied by an enigmatic photograph of Larkin’s flat in Pearson Park, this is another highly intertextual poem in which Mr Larkin is recreated in the image of his own ‘Mr Bleaney’, so that now the room which once belonged to ‘that novelist chappy’ has been ‘turned over to a well-balanced bloke / unafraid of ghosts, Pink Floyd posters on the walls.’ With a few deft strokes Smith gives us a convincing ‘warts and all’ portrait of the poet ‘almost capering’ to his classic jazz whilst at the same time he is ‘spying on “honeys”’. However, more than this, the piece is also a moving study on the subject of mortality in which the music changes with the decades and thirty years are reduced to ‘30 seconds on “News at Ten”’. Moreover, lest anyone think that Smith is merely an exponent of clever pastiche, he concludes with some bravura imagery that is entirely his own:
Coming and going across Pearson Park
some see orange and pink lamplights,
others luminous Larkinesque socks
against the evening’s darkening suit.’
Having established the Larkin theme, Smith proceeds to cast his net more widely. In ‘She’ he evokes his own adolescence by describing the erotic and ‘fulfilled figure’ of Ursula Andress rising from the waves in Dr. No. It is also the first of several poems inspired by the poet’s love of the cinema. Here, from the film version of King Solomon’s Mines, is the princess Ayesha disintegrating before our eyes:
Then the change in her. Stifled crying out,
corruption showing first on her spotted hands,
flesh jerking past the frames of desire
through such processes only film can fake.
Witty, intelligent, and full of fun, it must also be admitted that the allusiveness of this and many other poems here makes plenty of demands upon the reader. Alongside its cinematic references to Ian Fleming and Rider Haggard, there are echoes of Charles Aznavour, Larkin’s Mrs T, Ecclesiastes, Keats and no doubt others which the present reviewer has missed. Further highly entertaining excursions into the world of the silver screen are ‘Brief Encounter’, where ‘a veil of light separates art from life,’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Hitchcock’ which evokes ‘Female hip and automobile in Fifties curves, / cantilevers of bra and bridge.’
Central to Looking for Larkin is its virtuoso showcase ‘Poets’ Night on the S.S. Manxman’, a dazzling mock heroic epic in which Smith shows himself to be Hull’s answer to Dryden and Pope or, perhaps more appropriately, Clive James. There is no space here, and probably no need, to examine the rich literary heritage of ‘The Rumoured City’, other than to say that, from Larkin, Dunn, O’Brien and beyond, the list of poets seems endless, including figures such as Roger McGough and Tom Paulin who may not be immediately associated with the city, or Oliver Reynolds who started out with Faber in a blaze of glory but seems subsequently to have faded away. Over the years Smith himself has played a not insignificant role in this tradition and, via his long association with John Osborne’s journal Bête Noire, was well placed to observe the shenanigans and foibles of the city’s literati. Extending over twelve pages and featuring some dozens of poets, it would be invidious to focus on individuals in a poem which Smith refers to as ‘a long poem / on a long night, on a long boat. / A work of libel and celebration.’ There is, however, mayhem and bickering aplenty which is frequently fuelled by drink. Perhaps, as someone is alleged to have said about the Sixties: ‘If you can remember, you weren’t there.’ On a smaller scale, but just as hilarious and well observed is ‘Flannnerie’ in which the poet sharpens his scalpel on the Irish literary scene from Joyce and Flann O’Brien down to the more recent days of ‘Famous Seamus, the mud poet’ and ‘Fungus McMahon’.
A poem such as ‘Poets’ Night on the S.S. Manxman is bound to have a particular appeal for those who were a part of the ‘scene’ it depicts, so that those who were not may at first glance feel excluded. However, Smith’s brio and incisiveness, his skill with rhymes and rhythms and his frequently outrageous imagery are very appealing. Poets are, by and large, at least as fatuous and self-obsessed as everyone else and, whether the scene is the Roman Republic of Catullus or the coffee shops of Augustan London, it is always entertaining to see their vanities on display. The S.S. Manxman is a worthy reinvention of the ‘Ship of Fools.’ It would, however, be a mistake to see Smith as merely a gifted satirist and literary annalist. ‘On My Birthday’ is an endearingly nostalgic evocation of a Sixties childhood. Disappointed to discover that his postbox is empty, the poet is taken back to earlier days: ‘Back in bed I’m mindful of ten-bob notes, / riding the range of the back garden under a cowboy hat.’ ‘Shinglers F.C.’ returns to the same period and memorialises the doughty determination of its eponymous football team. In ‘Tomorrow’s People’ the old men ‘tending their allotments’ at the end of their lives are compared to ‘figures in a Breueghel landscape’ who are reduced to merely ‘doing something.’
Finally, if proof were needed that there is more to Smith than postmodernist high jinks and literary knockabout, one needs to look no further than ‘Graduation’, his austerely sustained meditation upon the death of his father:
The ceremony went well. Eulogies,
gowned ritual, a sense of having passed
onto that brief handshake with authority.
A liberation of sorts. Me to play.
Outside, the life of summer transcendent…
As in Beckett and some of the later poems of Larkin, Smith’s depiction of old age is relentless in its awfulness:
Being able to ‘take his drink’ left years
of enfeebled hopping on painkillers,
degeneration towards a chairbound,
legless, sightless, completely finished
dustbin character escaped from Beckett.
‘Cantankerous, humourless, feckless,’ the father is a figure who, having passed on, is ‘no longer / there to be feared,’ yet somehow, too, in spite of the tensions between the father and the son he dismisses sarcastically as ‘sugar plum’, big ‘ead’, ‘the professor’, the poet also recalls moments of togetherness when father and son shared late night ‘steak and kidney pies I wouldn’t eat now.’ Looking for Larkin is a varied and engrossing collection which is, by turns, funny, nostalgic and moving. It is beautifully illustrated by Dan Lyons and doesn’t have a dull page in it.
Looking for Larkin by Jules Smith is published by Flux Gallery Press and priced at £8.95. Order your copy here.Read More
It is a testament to Sue Millard’s exceptional skill as a poet that the poems in her collection “Ash Tree” have the tensile strength to contain the raw material of their contents.
In these nineteen graceful and crafted works she shares the experience of loving her grandchild, Naomi, through her short life and her death from cancer. It is a tribute to that love and its apparent powerlessness in the face of death that it gives the reader the ability to face and understand the emotional stages she and the child have passed through, but it is her handling of such potent themes as rage, hope, helplessness, loss of faith, fear, the sheer anguish of witnessing suffering and grief in such simple and accessible language and images that is astounding.
The ash tree of the title was and is a real tree felled to a stump in the garden in Sue Millard’s home in Cumbria – a garden in which Naomi and her Grandmother shared many moments together. These remembered times inform the poems right from the beginning.
In “Wild Strawberries” hope appears poignantly intact but already in the first three lines a deep unease is signalled,
“The strawberries are gone. Your nimble hands
seized them with glee when the shadowy side
was still green-white.”
It is the economy with which these lines convey all the desperate complexities of hope in the face of a cancer diagnosis that impresses.
Later, in “Many Waters” when,
“hope is too stale for me to drink now…” Sue Millard again conveys, with breathtaking economy the near impossibility to write about grief:
“Shut up the poems. I can only make
stars that splash into uncontrolled
wet angles, slashed across the white.”
The truth is however, that the formal dignity and control of Sue Millard’s craft are precisely what allows the reader to bear the unbearable with her.
“Missing”, with its unforced rhyme scheme and simple homely points of reference,
“I missed you by a quarter of an hour.
I should have hurried through my morning shower,
missed eating breakfast in the sleepy sun
or read no emails, or replied to none,”
The delicate trotting rhythm and repetitions animate the finest poem in this collection, “Pink”, in which we witness Naomi’s funeral procession,
“that pink box in a white hearse is
too small for you.
A sailing group of pink balloons
Learn flight with you.”
The child though missed is never missing in these poems. That the poet’s attention is so utterly focused ensures the validity of the poet’s commitment.
“I hold the brightness of you here,” she vows in “Putting away the toys” and this she most certainly does. Not since I read Douglas Dunn’s Whitbread award winning “Elegies” in 1985 have I been so moved. I cannot commend Ash Tree highly enough.
Silence the birds. Their notes drop
sweet as spring, but hope
is too stale for me to drink now.
Shut up the poems. I can only make
stars that splash into uncontrolled
wet angles, slashed across the white.
Dry up the rain. I can water
deserts with these tears, my face the shore,
each indrawn breath salt as the sea.
Hush the goodbyes. I shall watch
while your river flows to the falls,
and try to smile for you.
Ash Tree by Sue Millard is published by Prole and is priced at £5. Order your copy here.
The poems in this collection are densely packed with ideas and imagery. They are generally in a block form without stanzas thereby demanding that the reader takes their time reading them. Meaning is not immediately apparent but with repeated close study the often complex ideas become clearer .The author’s technique is to start with a concrete idea which then sparks a series of contemplations that are often metaphysical. However what draws the reader on is a fine use of lyrical rhythm with an often elegiac tone. This is not to say that the poems are depressing but take an honest look at aspects of humanity ranging from ageing and death to the modern obsession with making false gods out of the famous.
A recurrent thread throughout the collection is that of family, for me poems dealing with female members are the most notable. Rosenberg La forge has a talent for effective yet sparing imagery. In the poem ‘Her sister ‘s face’ the eponymous face is described as having given in to’ the improbable origami of time ‘ This is a particularly skilful poem as it begins with the contemplation of her sister’s ageing then swiftly moves onto the metaphysical question of ‘ who is to say where her atoms went?’ then is the final section pulls back from abstract thought to the more concrete memories of a shared childhood where the persona can no longer see ‘ the scar I gave her one year with the help of chicken pox.’
Disease figures prominently in the poems. ’ Recovery’ is a painful profile of a woman overwhelmed by the effects of radiation therapy. What is so effecting about the poem is not simply the patients’ inability to speak or swallow freely post treatment ‘since the radiation she keeps her fingers in her mouth’ but the way in which the narrator translates this behaviour as symbolic of the woman attempting to ‘prevent god from intervening where He was not wanted’.
Whilst death is not explicitly mentioned here its presence and effect on the patient is inferred by some fine imagery ‘the root of bitterness taking ‘which serves to convey the fear and anger felt by the victim. .
God in one guise or other features throughout the collection, however these are not devotional poems on the contrary there is no sense of faith rather a feeling that all Gods betray humanity in one way or another. Such poems focus subtly on the ways in which our modern deities such as film and rock stars ultimately let us down. However these works do not simply take on contemporary icons and trash them but rather they take the subject as a starting point for other ideas. This is best seen in the opening poem ‘Rock Star Watching’. The celebrity is generic thereby allowing the reader to project his/her only fantasy figure onto them. The poem contemplates the mystery of such stars’ attraction. It seeks to define that element usually found in performance that makes them worshiped by their audience.
In other poems such as ‘Before Elton John as a faggot’, the rock hero is linked to the narrator’s teenage years where ‘there were possibilities in the blood, the brain and the body in between’. The poem extending into a reverie on the absolute self -belief of youth that circumvents obstacles , ‘I believed that if I held my face long and high enough during a running leap I would just keep going into the sun and behind it’, the excellent use of enjambment here serving to reinforce this unstoppable optimism. However the poem ends in realism, with the introduction of sexual politics into the narrator’s life. ’ Male facing shadows and they directions they demand’. This line and indeed much of this female centred poem chiming with many woman who recall the moment when the need to please men, obtain a boyfriend became imperative to anything else.
This collection explores ideas that may at times make uncomfortable reading. Death, disease, ageing are all contemplated full on but the writer’s skill is to discuss such issues with fine imagery, often placing the dialectic in the context of the family where the effect is touching and relevant.
Order your copy of To Mick Jagger, Other Gods, And All Women published by Aldrich Press here
I’ve woken up with protest of the physical running through my mind. McMillan has a voice which surprises you, and a deep poetic theory behind the voice. It is almost as if I’m surprised – even after the wonderful the moon is a supporting player – walking into a room and finding this poet there, because the ‘rooms’ are so crowded these days. But McMillan stands alone, even when you hear Thom Gunn – say – singing in the subtext. I’m sure I was partly moved because I remember so vividly buying The Sense of Movement about a thousand years ago, when I was a boy, and stumbling upon a poem about Elvis – did poets know about Elvis too, I thought! This is remarkable stuff, making strange as the early Gunn made strange, and with a gift so lightly worn you might easily miss just how deep it is.
The texture of McMillan’s world is easy enough to recognise and acknowledged in the notes: quotations from Ivor Gurney and Virginia Woolf jostle with Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems and Tadeuz Rozewicz’s recycling. The physical of the title demands our fullest attention, from Virginia Woolf’s “I have to bang my hand against some door to bring myself back to the body”, to Thom Gunn’s affirmation that “he will live / here, morning by morning”. It is research into Gunn’s letters which took McMillan from Barnsley to Berkeley University, and a rich word-horde of imagery comes from the journey, whether of “the day chasing its own shadow” on Shambles Street in Barnsley or the graffiti of Ocean Beach in San Francisco, and the poet’s laconic, American accented “don’t be afraid / to put ya toes / in the sand”.
But what is most moving about protest of the physical is the conversation going on between the images. If I’m right in thinking there is a theory between the lines of the poems, it may be to do with how we love, and prevent love, “how thin the membranes that we build / between each other”. This is definitely something to do with the dualism which separates mind and body, so that “we’ve confused happiness / with someone being able to say our name to us” and “half the people here only know the outside / exists because they talk to it through / high strung wires while they dream / of being recognised on the street”. The ‘here’ is of course everywhere, and when “a crowd gathers” to see whether a man will commit suicide, “some are concerned / a few shout encouragement most / just want to see what happens when the man jumps”.
This might sound like a bleak world, but it doesn’t feel like that. And the feeling is in the poetry, if I may make an artificial distinction. The poetry hints at transcendence, even if only as something we all hope for. What the waiting crowd “want to see” is the victim’s arms “grasp the invisible ladder his elation … his regret” because it is such invisible ladders that occupy our own dreams. Love is obviously at the heart of this, and most obviously accounts for the ghost of Thom Gunn haunting protest of the physical. The Gunn of Touch and The Man with the Night Sweats. “I could have / I should have tried harder” McMillan says in the final lines of his new pamphlet, yet his language makes a quite exquisite, sometimes Pinteresque music of love with perfectly pitched cadences of speech: “there are days / when I don’t miss you . . . or even love you / that much . . . anymore”; frightening but brilliant imagery of “the wheezing orchestra of the future”; physical intimacy “which means knowing / the exact taste of someone else’s / sleep in their mouth on waking”; and a vigorous tenderness we haven’t heard since the seventeenth century: “your kiss was deep enough to stand in”. “Read this. Then read it again and again” Helen Mort said in her own review. One waits with wonder to see where Andrew McMillan’s first full-length collection will take us.
Order your copy of Andrew McMillan, protest of the physical (Red Squirrel Press, 2013) pp.27, £5.00p. HERE
The Plucking Shed, 2010. Cinnamon Press. Rise, 2012. Cinnamon Press.
To survive cancer, as this poet has done, and to write about the experience without fear or bitterness is remarkable, and yet life’s journey is not necessarily laden with gilded ornaments, rousing sex, and unforgettable adventure. No, it is most frequently a harrowing experience the older one gets. Gill McEvoy was born in 1944, when the buzz bombs from Germany were wreaking havoc and despair although it was well seen to be the last maniacal act of Britain’s greatest European antagonist of the twentieth century. As an adult, McEvoy endured a problematic marriage to a violently ill man, raised their children, saw her husband die and leave her with the domestic mess, as it were, to clean up. On top of that, she then became sick herself, but now – approaching seventy – she has come out on top of her troubles. Or so one gathers from these two collections of verse.
McEvoy’s poems, collected late in book form, are not only statements of fact to her readers but reminders to her (now grown) children that the poet endures not without effort. More than that, an intelligent good will marks both of these books, published within two years of each other. She makes art from the quotidian elements of her life, and we see that a British woman’s life is no different in essence than someone working hard in Salt Lake City or in Winnipeg, in Warsaw or down in Rio. From The Plucking Shed, here are the opening and closing stanzas of “Preparing Fish”:
I have lived inland all my life,
got no further than sticklebacks
glowering in jars,
never once ate trout.
Here in my new kitchen
this strange fish slips from my grip,
slithers and slaps against the sink.
It smells of foreign things.
When you walk in – starving, as you say –
you find me lining out the frail specks
of starlight on the drainer’s edge.
The recognition of effort in daily life, not slothfulness, even after the anxiety and physical pain of a bout with cancer, is what informs McEvoy’s poems. This is not a diction borne of dilettantism or overly cerebral mirages. Neither is it conscious of itself entirely, either. The poet can be blunt as well, as in these final lines from “Message to the Well-Meaning”: “So // the next person to come along and say, Think positive, and all that sort of crap / will get it right between the eyes. / For I’m a hard woman now; / I am diamond, carborundum, / and I wipe out fools.” Now, can you argue with that? I can’t, and I only remark that putting frustration into a succinct, “in-your-face” poem meant to be both serious and good-humored is what all poets and artists – those who create something from supposedly nothing – strive for constantly.
Rise is more concisely ordered in some ways than The Plucking Shed, but no less vivid and memorable in facing quandaries and uncertainties. For McEvoy, observing – for that is all one should do – natural life, not wrought with human structures but certainly so affected – is what makes her life bearable, or at least that’s the message throughout these poems, succinctly crafted, sculpted (as Sigrid Bergie might say), to fit recognition, understanding, and in the end our admiration. Here is the entirety of “Magpie”:
Outside my window
he’s a pure sun in an aura of black.
Brilliance pings from his feathers,
blinds me, shrinks my room
Later in this second collection, there is the “Nuala” sequence, about a small girl in her mother’s company who is learning the limits of what she can have and experience. McEvoy captures this frustration convincingly, as in the opening lines of “The Balloon Man” – the child doesn’t see danger, but her mother does:
She stops to look at the man
twisting balloons into animal shapes.
She tugs her mother’s arm:
What? Snaps her mother whose mind’s
on shopping and the fearful price
of children’s shoes . . . .
McEvoy also plumbs the vortex of a single woman living alone – more than just an empty nest “syndrome” but both a horror and a freedom, as if leaving her house and just walking in the woods for a spell, not being home, could alarm the neighbors. The sequences of “Almond Street” poems evoke this plurality of oneness very well, at least to this critic’s American sensibility.
In sum, then, both The Plucking Shed and Rise give ample testimony, if such could be said, of a significant poet – Gill McEvoy – living in non-London England, one who has married, raised children to adulthood, been widowed, survived cancer – at least for now – and has written masterfully about her life and those of others, characters in a novel or play of poetry – for that’s what good depictions are, essentially: how to describe this journey of life from childhood through adulthood and trying to keep death at bay, and writing delicious poems not always mellifluous or delicate, but facing difficulties head on. Would that we all had such courage!
A Poet’s Journey of Abandonment, Near-Death – and Recovery.
This is a second collection of poems by the Iowa-born poet who has lived in St. Paul the last three decades or so. Not just living, it must be emphasized, but surviving ordeals – the collapse of her marriage, her brain surgery to remove a tumor the “size of a baseball” and then learning basics all over again – speaking, walking, driving a motor vehicle, the fundamentals of resuming life as a functioning woman in her late fifties, but always with the filling reservoir of language and poems, her gratitude and astonishment to be still alive.
The central motif of this new collection is putatively “Odessa” – but not the city port at the Black Sea or the town in Texas. Instead, it refers to a small town about three hours west of Minneapolis near the South Dakota border. If one can gauge the chronology accurately, the poet’s visit took place before her medical crisis (actually the dominant theme here). Kirkpatrick’s gift is in her succinct language and bare yet full imagery. Here are central lines from the title poem:
I am always afraid of what might show up, suddenly.
What might hide.
At dusk I saw the start of low plateaus, plains
really, even when planted. Almost to the Dakota border
I was struck by the isolation and abiding loneliness
yet somehow thrilled. Alone. Hardly another car on the road
and in town, just a few teenagers
wearing high-school sweatshirts, walking and laughing, on the edge
of a world they don’t know.
Darkness started in as heaviness in the colors
of fields, a tractor, cornstalks, stone.
Kirkpatrick’s first book, Century’s Road, appeared in 2004 and was well received but not widely reviewed. She was over fifty, but at least had her first book published, and began looking at her life’s interstices for a second volume. Now a poetry teacher and professor, but not having arrived at poetry until her senior year at the University of Iowa, Kirkpatrick later went through divorce while her two children were not quite on their own. Still, the functions of termination had to be endured, recounted in a sequence titled “The Italo Poems” and borne without rancor in “The Attorney” – as these opening lines attest:
Your husband is leaving.
You have to choose.
You have to get an attorney.
Go downtown near the steeple and the derelict pigeons
where the bells alone cost millions.
Walk into corporate heights, crying,
state your name at the desk,
weep at a table longer than your dining room,
decide what to keep and give up.
Smart and tough
without love, the attorney
knows the law, knows the patterns . . .
How should one quantify bad luck, or what seems like it at the time? In this book, Kirkpatrick prefers to convert negativity into poems marking her journey’s byways – medical, physical, and emotional. She displays no interest in vengeance or score settling.
What came next, of course, was her brain tumor, recounted first in a thirteen-page sequence of synchronous yet restrained verse both mellifluous and stark. Indeed, “Brain Tumor” is a tumbling but focused recalling of her precipitous dance with mortality: “You stumble because your brain has been pressed / for so long, its tissue is damaged, its current volcanic. // Now you understand the numbed foot, / the jumps, floaters, and tingling. / Now you are seized and perpetually falling . . . .”
The remarkable aspects of this collection resound in the witnessing Kirkpatrick does of herself, those around her, her efforts in recovery, doing her therapy as prescribed, good days and bad, persistence a recurring theme. In an eight-sonnet array, “Time of the Flowers,” she records her observations and includes tiny phrases from contemporary writers (e. g., Carolyn Forché, Paul Gruchow, Laurie Scheck, Peter Sacks, Carol Bly, and others) at the bottom of the pages instead at the top near the title. This leads the reader to concentrate on the poem first, not so much a quote from someone else. Still, these sonnets also weave allusions to Greek mythology, Native American literature, and other voices preceding her lifetime. Her themes flow seamlessly, the images both independent but merging into each other, as in the second sonnet, “Survivor’s Guilt”:
How I’ve changed may not be apparent.
I limp. Read and write, make tea, boiling water
as I practiced in rehab. Sometimes, like fire,
a task overwhelms me. I cry for days, shriek
when the phone rings. Like a page pulled from flame,
I’m singed but intact: I don’t burn the house down.
Later, cleared to drive, I did outpatient rehab. Others
lost legs or clutched withered minds in their hands.
A man who can’t speak recognized me
and held up his finger, meaning “one year since
your surgery.” Mine. Sixteen since his. Guadalupe
wishes daily to be the one before. Nobody
is that. Like love, the neurons can cross fire.
You don’t get everything back.
No, perhaps not, but the poet still has her tools at the ready. This book, most of which was written after Patricia Kirkpatrick’s brain surgery, is testament to the gifts she has always had. Odessa has numerous and recurring themes, metaphors and allusions weaving in and out in surprising ways – the small town with a famous name she visited on the prairie, her personal losses, her desperate but successful efforts at keeping rational perspective when her life was in serious jeopardy, going beyond that to make poems, to reclaim her life and keep on. In so doing, Odessa is a gift to us all.
Odessa by Patricia Kirkpatrick is published by Milkweed Editions. Order your copy here.