Alan Price Reviews ‘In the Scullery with John Keats’ by Louise Warren

 

 

I’m fortunate to live in Camden and be very close to Keats house in Hampstead. This September I was on holiday in Rome and visited the house where Keats died and also the English cemetery where he’s buried. An image of the young, poor, battered by illness Keats resonates for me in those locations, whilst on Hampstead Heath I conjure up the Cockney poet out for a lively walk.

When I read Louise Warren’s In the Scullery with John Keats I encountered four poems where Keats, flitting round like a mischievous ghost, is re-located to a contemporary North London and Devon. In the book’s title poem, Keats comes into deep focus with the objects in his house. A dead rabbit in the kitchen swings on its hook. Keats startles you by daring the poet to touch it. It swings as “the camera missed a trick”. Then, in the next poem, he’s in the garden and after that the bedroom. At each dislocation, Warren makes you feel the increasing force of his presence. An erotic rolling over in a field of wheat into a Devon sea occurs. Warren’s imagination takes flight and she will “roll beneath him like a pin.” In the last Keats poem, In the Underground with John Keats a train pulls in at Chalk farm tube station. At this “he leant against the mast of a ship / he watched the moon rise up in a slop basin / it was all tales to him and poems.”

What’s so terrific about these Keats poems are their cheekiness, strangeness and subversive antics. It’s as if we where watching an old Ken Russell TV arts drama about a Romantic poet. All that’s missing is a wild music soundtrack. However Louise Warren’s often long rhythmic lines supply their own musical pulse.

“I smelt the heat of his arms the soft dip below his throat”

Even longer musical lines are conveyed in other poems. It’s brilliantly on show in the very moving, Sedgemoor Ward. This poem about a dying man (her father?) observing the hospital ward and the view of the countryside from his window ends on a note of hope.

“We gather our things
Outside the water and light make their strange perpetual motion.”

The elongation of that final line beautifully expresses the continuous flow of life still continuing in the face of an approaching death. It comes back full circle to the water and light mentioned in the poem’s first line. Nature may remain cyclic and indifferent. But not the poet. She has to record our very human act of carrying on.

The Language of Flowers is an eloquent example of how Warren can stretch out a fine lyrical line, only to follow it with words that collar it back to a sensual apprehension of a botanist’s study, when he enters with grass soaking through his boots.

It, a slight weak rain swelling the air to a woollen thickness.
Unlike the air in his study which is proper, as paper is, and the vapour
Of thin soup. An uncoaxed fire. A fear of sweating.”

This causes the poem to abruptly stop. Fear. Sweating. Anxiety is manifest. Then the poem re-commences with an amazing sensual assault.

“Wild Honeysuckle arouses his nostrils, and sharp unmade twigs
Dig into his skin, lift the hair from his scalp, disrobe him.”

Warren’s poems are elegantly paced and tightly worded constructions. Her subject matter is eclectic. A dead poets visitations, the sky at night, the dance of a curtain, country common names, John Tenniel’s drawing of the white rabbit for Lewis Carrols’s Alice, balconies at night and gall wasp samples. These are poems that are equally disconcerting and engaging, tender and prickly; both influenced by fairy tales and nursery rhymes that can morph into menace and sudden darkness. Or humour and tenderness that root out an uncertain light in the dark. Louis Warren has a highly original take on her invented worlds. She’s a demanding poet. That’s a big positive in my book. You have to make the imaginative leap and succumb to her style. Yet the effort proves richly rewarding.

Like her previous book, A Child’s Last Picture Book of the Zoo, the Keats titled pamphlet shows Warren’s continuing strong development. She’s a remarkable writer, not for everyone, but definitely for my taste. A memorably haunting voice in the current poetry scene producing highly individualistic work, that’s very good indeed.

 

 

 
Order your copy of  In the Scullery with John Keats (Cinnamon Press)  by Louise Warren here: www.cinnamonpress.com

 

 

 

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