Rosie Jackson reviews ‘In Her Shambles’ by Elizabeth Parker

 

This is a book of translucencies. Nothing is over-solid or overstated, nothing prosaic, yet the poems have an energy and exactness that capture relationships, places, people with unusually fine detail. Take the opening poem, ‘Crockery’.  The ‘you’ it’s addressed to, never named, could be a lover, friend, anyone, but instead of being described directly, they are seen aslant, summoned by their reflections in chrome and crockery, their lip marks on a glass.

‘The wine glass has peeled a crescent from your mouth
each crease ridging the grease. I can’t look at you.’

This sets the tone for the whole of this debut collection: unexpected, lucent, precise, sharp, inventive, daring, controlled, but never heavy handed. The touch is so deft you almost think it happens by accident, then you realize how carefully crafted the poems are, and it comes as no surprise to discover Parker has a first class degree in literature and creative writing from Warwick University and an MA in mythology from Bristol. Her learning comes through in literary allusions: Titus Andronicus, Thomas Chatterton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but they are woven with skill, the learning never intrudes.

From Titus Andronicus, for example, Parker takes the story of Lavinia, raped then mutilated by having her tongue cut out and hands amputated so she can’t utter or write the names of her attackers. But in Parker’s beautiful reworking, in ‘Following Lavinia,’ ‘Lavinia Writes’ – and perhaps implicitly in the last poem in the collection ‘Writing him Out’ – these outrages are dealt with by a mute resistance which will not give up, the language lyrical and far-reaching.

‘They took her tongue, her hands
so she tried to write with driftwood, sand.

The sea was too strong
her words little caves water curled up in
blunting their edges.

She tried to speak again
carved deeper.’ (from ‘Following Lavinia’).

The feminism here is implicit, understated, finding a louder voice in ‘Lavinia Writes’, where the whole story becomes a parable of the silenced abused woman trying to find a language.

Other characters include a piper in Edinburgh playing Kavanagh’s On Raglan road, a piano tuner, various relatives and friends treated as water in the lyrical ‘Rivers’, but most of the figures in these poems are unnamed. ‘Woolworths’ evokes a woman through personal memories, caught in strong images, but we never know who she is. There’s a female stranger on a train in ‘10.30 To Severn Beach’.  Another unnamed woman makes a white vase that seems to speak of her attempt to create and keep something beautiful, pure, inviolate. Again, images capture delicately thin yet telling slices of life. But identities, plots live under the surface. Parker never makes the mistake of milking things for meaning. She doesn’t labour points, doesn’t draw out morals, knows when to stop, when to leave the phase or the poem to stand for itself. All is oblique, hinted at, told slant.

Nor is there any one poetic form, nothing is allowed to solidify into a predictable form or shape. Instead there’s a dextrous mix of mostly 2, 3 and 4 line verses, with minimal punctuation, the text unassuming but contemporary on the page.

In the simply named ‘Lizzie’, Parker splices together the process of deleting and editing word files with Dante Gabriel Rossetti exhuming his late wife Elizabeth Siddal’s grave in Highgate so he could publish the poetry he had buried with her. Parker has researched this in detail, but refrains from writing a predictable narrative of re-enactment, instead breaking up the story with contemporary touches to create a reflection on the process of textual deletion and retrieval.

Biography isn’t always relevant, but the fact of Parker growing up in her parents’ garden centre in the Forest of Dean is surely an influence on the way she writes with such wonderful detail about the green world. There are plants, sunlight and water, a love of nature that is earthed as well as transcendent, an intuitive connection to roots, bulbs, soil, magnolia, spades, fern fronds, what lives on the surface and what lies beneath, all that is burgeoning, blossoming, seeding, lying in wait. Here too, Parker knows how to see what is out of the frame, beyond our usual way of seeing.

I should add that the book is also beautifully produced, as we have come to expect from Seren. The front cover collage by Maria Rivans, showing the head of Audrey Hepburn sprouting a surreal fascinator of birds, boats, moths, flowers, ferns, zebras, prams, women, is exquisite and utterly apt.

 

Rosie Jackson lives in Frome, Somerset, teaches creative writing and is widely published. Her collection The Light Box (Cultured Llama) and her memoir The Glass Mother (Unthank) came out in 2016. In 2017 she won the Stanley Spencer Poetry competition. www.rosiejackson.org.uk     

 

Order your copy of  In Her Shambles by Elizabeth Parker from the Seren Press website:www.serenbooks.com

 

 

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