SAINTS, MYSTICS, DARK LANDSCAPES: REVIEW BY SALLY CHISHOLM
THE LADY CHAPEL by Sarah Law
ISBN 1 900152 88 6 105pp £8.50 Stride, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter EX4 6EW
NEKYIA by Rose Flint
ISBN 1 900152 89 4 110pp £8.50 Stride, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, EX4 6EW
The Lady Chapel is Sarah Law's second collection of poetry. It is illustrated on the cover by a handsome photograph of a golden-haired, blue-robed 'Madonna' (Ely Cathedral) by David Wynne, a statue poised as if about to jump from the cathedral wall. The table of contents, a two and a half page (centered) list, undulates temptingly. The eye is caught by such titles as 'Virgin at Ely', 'Julian's Vision', 'Tinkerbell', 'Sardines' and 'The Man Who Was Paid to Lie Down for Three Months'. A tentative riffle through the book reveals a selection of poems which vary in length, shape and form. All very tantalising. I pause over the sub-titles attached to two or three of the pieces, such as 'Diagnosis of a Mystic' subtitled 'based on the life and migraines of Hildegarde if Bingen'. Irresistible. I catch flavours of spirituality and humour, the everyday and the profound, sensuality and plain routine and I am drawn in.
The second half of the book is called 'Stretch: A Yoga Sequence' and consists of thirty one sonnet-length poems. Each one is about a specific yoga pose such as 'Cat', 'Tree', 'Bridge', 'Cobra', 'Sun Salutation', and manages to convey both the introverted concentration of doing yoga and the images suggested by the subject of the pose. Sarah Law slips through the iron disciplines of rhyme and rhythm in these 'little songs' and has achieved a fluidity of expression which is enhanced by the repeated fourteen line form.
It is hard to say which is my favourite of all these poems. Some are very accessible and I recognise them with pleasure as I turn the pages. Who could resist 'On Stuffing, Roasting and Eating a Chicken after Half a Lifetime of Vegetarianism'?
Puckered flesh is yielding in dismemberment
as, hands scrubbed clean and raw, I’m spooning
hot stuffing – sage and thyme – into cavities.
Sam takes a photo: two young ladies, alone
for the festive season, abandoning decades
of unparalleled green leaves, for mischief, meat.
The picture is instant, a familiar ritual founded in childhood and evoking 'the snuff of grandmotherly kitchens,' with the difference that this is about 'the vagaries of spinster saturnalia'. The poem ends:
In good time, we claim and carve
dinner: a faint lake of blood settling in the dish,
the clink of our glasses over a living stream.
neatly linking a sense of ritual with the mild guilt of a lapse from vegetarianism.
Other poems yield their meaning less easily. This is not a criticism. The yoga poems in particular are rewarding to read and reread. At their best they slide beyond conveying the physical experience of stretching the body into a yoga position and begin to inhabit the forms, 'Lion', 'Warrior', 'Tortoise', 'Mountain', that the poses are named after. In 'Warrior'
resonant land and gel into a throw, proud
as a cartoon tiger, and ingenious
as puzzle plants. It's your thighs that take the flak.
This is surprising, funny and, from my experience, true.
The poem 'Virgin at Ely' is simple and lovely:
She is standing, poised for a dive
arms raised through solid breath of blue
eyes downcast, measuring
that step towards eternity
I would like to quote it all and am tempted to discuss every one of the poems but perhaps will content myself by recommending this collection as well worth reading.
'Nekyia' is not a word that appears in any of the reference books I have consulted. Luckily, this book of Rose Flint's poems carries the explanation on its back cover. 'The nekyia of Odysseus relates his "night sea journey", a term used by Jung to describe periods of descent into darkness and the stormy, dangerous voyage through them.' The free verse poems in this collection are sombre, sensitive, introspective, mainly written in a minor key but with a light and fluent touch.
The fifty six poems vary in length and form as well as in their arrangement on the page which is attractive as one looks through the book. My favourite title is 'The Map is always Palimpsest' which coincides with a notion of my own. Other titles tempt. 'Slow Dissolve into Leaf', 'Journey over Blossoming Stones', 'Water, the Body, Vision' and 'Feng Shui for Nightmares' point to the strong spiritual element of the writing. However, titles, such as 'Storm', 'Going Under', 'Black Moon' and 'Haven' suggest melancholy pressures and times of struggle.
Landscape themes provide images evoking life experiences. The first poem in the collection, 'Ring of Water' opens:
I saw you again yesterday, fleetingly from the train,
as I watched the land closing into shadow.
The drowned winter countryside brings memories of times shared with a partner whose mourned absence is not explained. Reminders of the past perhaps are
in a flash of water slipped from its leash to run
for a while in brilliance beneath the willow trees.
In 'The Map is always Palimpsest' this theme is developed. The actual journey through landscape becomes an exploration of the record of accumulated memories suggested by the ephemeral sensations of place. Words such as 'motorway', 'tarmac' and 'lorries' blending with more poetic terms – 'kindled gold', 'spirit-house of meadowsweet' and 'the white moon'– suggest the variety of the memories. Then 'Roads as familiar to me now as my palm's/ cartography' bring insights. The discovery, once, of a crushed, barn owl at this roadside seems to foreshadow the tragedy implicit in an intense love affair when dangers like 'black ice slick in the shadow' were irrelevant and unheeded. 'The owl like a ghost.' is a warning symbol.
I like the first stanza of the final poem 'The Third Deer' very much. The account of 'The first deer that walked into the town' is wonderfully descriptive. 'Quietly, she came/ over the ice on the round pond deep as a mirror.' The poem continues by describing the arrival of the second and the third deer, each one more shadowy and ethereal than before. The poem ends in a dreamlike mode as the third manifestation is a Spirit-Deer appearing in shifting forms with which the writer identifies herself in an intense visionary sequence.
These poems are very successful at creating fluid and shadowy impressions in the reader's mind which makes it hard to pin down their subject matter. They certainly repay the reading and rereading. This quotation from ‘Haven’, the penultimate poem, will stay with me:
In this tall panelled room
the dark wood and the books dream
we both float bookishly, studious
up over the soft armchairs, between the mullions.
Stories are wound between our hands
like mohair, spidery glinting filaments.
Filaments of imagery is a good way of describing the poetry that Rose Flint gives us in this collection.
© Sally Chisholm 2004