David Cooke reviews Bethany W Pope’s ‘Undisturbed Circles’



Undisturbed Circles is Bethany W. Pope’s third full length collection and follows closely on the heels of her chapbook, The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press, 2014).  It consists of six acrostic sonnet sequences, a form which Pope first unveiled in her second collection, Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books, 2013). In their different ways the sequences gathered here are variations on the ‘quest’ theme and explore aspects of the poet’s psychic and spiritual growth. Readers of Pope’s previous collections will be familiar with some of the autobiographical details of her journey and the way that she negotiates seemingly intractable subject matter by means of highly complex metrical structures. Since Crown of Thorns, Pope has been arranging many of her poems into ‘crowns’ of acrostic sonnets, in which the first letters of each line and, in this collection, the final letters of each line, spell out messages that comment upon the main narrative. Add to this a regular syllabic count, a pattern of repetitions whereby one sonnet starts with the concluding line of its predecessor and, occasionally, a final sonnet composed of all the first lines of the poems that preceded it, and you will get some idea of the challenges that this poet sets herself. That she manages to make any sense at all might be considered impressive, but that she comes through with poetry that is authentic and memorable is even more so. Moreover, the way that the acrostics embody submerged narrative threads hints at the way that autobiographical details are buried and resurface in the mythologies explored in this collection.

In ‘Fox Cycle’ the acrostics are given extra prominence by heading up each poem by way of exposition. We learn from the outset that ‘Vixen knows terrible secrets’ and then follow the lines as they weave through and highlight aspects of the main narrative: ‘Love of dark set her path / fleet-footed as the shadows. Bless / the journey. Paths through spider- / haunted yews yet return here: home’. As visceral and empathetic as the work of Hughes or Henry Williamson, Pope leads us through an ever-recurring cycle of procreation, birth and death:

The vixen dug into the earth, her home.
Her belly ached with glassy pain as her
expanding cervix gaped for her daughter.

Pope, of course, does not delude herself that there is no divide between her and the creature she is describing: ‘And yet, / what could I know of her mind?’ The notorious blood lust of a fox in a hen coop is given concise but graphic expression: ‘Festival / night among the chickens.’ Memorable, too, are the repeated lines that link successive sonnets:

Even the youngest of us taste our deaths.’ (2/3)

Boldly the child wandered through the bone-yard. (3/4)

They courted among shrike-haunted thorn trees. (5/6)

With her second and longest sequence,’The Labyrinth’, Pope returns to a more overtly autobiographical mode. However, each acrostic sonnet is further complemented by an expository prose poem and a 5 X 5, a form devised by the poet in which five lines of five syllables have the effect of a slightly compressed tanka. Within this brief compass ‘real’ characters from world of North Carolina morph into the mythological figures of Persephone, Bear and Vixen, while within the sonnets’ main narrative there is plenty of the ‘Southern Gothic’ we have come to expect: a heady mix of deprivation, guilt, and fundamentalist religion in which the protagonist, ‘a strange chthonic child’, discovers books and the gift for poetry that leads to her eventual redemption. The discovery of love, also, has its part to play: ‘the / Soft warmth of skin that loves your hard flesh.’

After the traumatic details of ‘The Labyrinth’, the poet turns, by way of contrast,  to the classical tradition in ‘The Metamorphosis of Physis’, which traces the artistic development of a friend’. An enigmatic idyll, in which the poet just about gets away with some slightly arch and Parnassian language, this is also a sequence in which she brings in some comic touches in her portrayal of the grumpy Hephaestus. Three further cycles complete the collection. ‘Three-Legged Crow’ is a short trickster cycle in which the matter of fact tone of the sonnets contrasts with the mythological narrative of the 5 x 5s that accompany them:

Crows have incredible intelligence.
Rarely does it take more than a few hours
Of work to find their daily food. If you
Watch them out on the lawn, their sense of fun
Frequently overwhelms them…

When the world ends, Crow
Will switch off the lights
And shut the last door.
Crow will see us all
Out into the night.

In ‘The Tower’ Pope’s sources are medieval with echoes of Dante and a dog-headed St Christopher taken from the Byzantine tradition. Making use of an archetypal symbol previously explored by Browning and Yeats, Pope’s ‘dreamlike experiment in gothic drama’ is a powerful blend of the visionary and the realistic:

The plants were phosphorescent. Light from small
Excrescent fungi flourished, showing the
Nearly overgrown staircase that spiralled
Clear through the centre of a room…

Finally, ‘Double Helix’ is a sonnet sequence exploring the evolution of man as a physical and spiritual being, a theme which is reminiscent of some of Auden’s more conventionally structured sonnets. Never deflected by what is merely fashionable Bethany W. Pope is a poet who always goes where her muse takes her.  She is a formidable technician who has moments of real power.



Order your copy of Bethany W. Pope: Undisturbed Circles. from Lapwing Publications here

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