Never Mind the Devil, it's Skill that's in the Detail


Little Boat, Jean Valentine (80pp, $22.95, Wesleyan University Press)
Commandments
, Jackie Wills (81pp, £8.99, Arc)
New and Selected Poems
, Jennifer Clement (102pp, £8.95, Shearsman)


Little Boat's not a book about boats - except in the metaphorical sense of a vessel for 'poling/ my way into my life' in the opening poem 'La Chalupa, the Boat'. (I think a chalupa is what we'd call a shallop.) This meditative writing is slow, spacious, spare and deliberate - so stripped down that, as with Gillian Allnutt's recent writing, it's not easy to take quotations from it; you almost have to quote a whole poem. This first one opens:

     I am twenty,
     drifting in la chalupa

then reconsiders its verb:

     No, not drifting, I am poling
     my way into my life.     It seems
     like another life.

before moving into the 'mind' of that other life, with 'the seven deaths, / and the seven bread offerings - '. Wherever this metaphor's taken the poem, the writing's anchored again in the final line: 'the chalupa / you built once, slowly, in the yard, after school - '.

I mention this act of anchorage, as briefly-named objects serve the same function in other poems too. A title may suggest narrative, as 'Hospital:     strange lights', but narrative's withheld in favour of atmosphere, feeling:

     - not just the other room.
     another frame
     dragging     blue
     or brighter blue:     strange lights

The anchorage again falls at the end of the poem:
    
     as we were
     in life
     you turning and turning my coat buttons

It's as if there's much more to be said, and more is being meditated on, but only a few words have made it into utterance. Sometimes I wonder whether such brief references can really serve as a useful lightning conductor for a poem; or are they so passing, so private, they exclude the reader?

The thought is sombre on the whole. Here is a lighter moment from the section 'Jesus Said', all seven lines of 'The Afterlife Poem':

     Jesus said,
     but I am
'alive'!
    
     It's the same material,
     but lighter,
     summer stuff,
    
     star-coil,
     Akhmatova's hair…


To pick up Jackie Will's Commandments after Little Boat is to be struck by how very English it is - by which I mean grounded, filled with the stuff of the world, and colour. The poems work the other way round from Jean Valentine's - vivid detail, story, and then a little floater to lift the poem above specifics. 'Appeasement' is the simplest example, a poem naming wind, beach, surf, cliffs, and tideline, the place where maybe, it concludes, 'is the offering you're looking for'.

The commandments of the title are dealt with separately and variously, not in a separate section, but layered in-between the book's other poems. 'Don't commit adultery' romps through a list of the places not to do it; 'Don't make idols' stays closer to its Biblical origin: 'I'll queue / in any unknown cathedral to rub a relic'. These ten poems are criss-crossed by partial self-portraits, 'The me who drinks too much', '…who's a mother', '…who's a wish.' Family, motherhood, and the other woman make appearances - the latter's inside a mobile phone, 'flat as a Sim card' in 'Inured'.

The book's second part is set in specific landscapes, still peopled (even if by inference) as is the river in 'Cuckmere Haven'

     its swans, paddling in the lazy flow
     so achingly monogamous.

The book ends with 'Where I live', an 8-pager which sets out like this:

     I'll walk you to town,
     in winter serious with conferences and church outings,
     in summer a rainbow of Pride.

The walk's vigorous - and so's the writing, detailed and vivid too:

     Or we could trek across to the allotments on the flint ridge,
     find scrapers and Bongo's old shed, his, chickens, the parties and flags

until we circle back to Jackie Wills's own street

     A full moon is rising out of the elms and I think of my neighbours,
     of Justine and Fi, of Nick and Julie, of Quentin and Sophie

leaving me puzzling about what we went on this long walk for
- though I can see it will delight anyone who knows the town. One or two portentous references hang in the air without being resolved: 'the West Pier's ribs are bare now, / a reminder of Aids, the three months of waiting, the test' - so I think I'm missing something. This is too big a poem, too strategically placed in the book to be simply a stroll.


Little Boat's in hardback, and so is Commandments - Arc's joined Salt in an attempt to get bookshops give shelf-space to poetry by means of the added value of hard covers and coloured flyleaves. Shearsman's New and Selected by Jennifer Clement is paperback, but a bit less floppy than some other books produced by Lightning Source - this one's fine. These are the first poems I've read by Jennifer Clement, but the writing's as memorable as her novel True Stories Based on Lies. If Jean Valentine is too sparing of detail and Jackie Wills too generous with it, Jennifer Clement makes elegant and precise judgments of what and how much her poems should say.

All 48 of the poems of her sequence 'Lady of the Broom' are included; these especially remind me of the novel. The narrative is briefly given in a quotation from Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson
: 'one of the rare instances of dying for love'. The poems are in the voice of the woman who will die. Number 8 (entire):

     My dresses want to move
     and cross their arms,
     life themselves up,
     walk.

The details are few, but recur. Clothes, sweeping, walking, writing are the themes, more powerful at each reappearance. From 18:

     I am a garment.
     You can wear me and button
     me at your wrists,
     line your clothes with my body.

Jennifer Clement also gives voices to other women in 'Newton's Sailor': Caroline Herschel looks for comets; Marie Curie writes seven letters to Pierre after his death: 'I have kept your death from the equations / in case they lose courage' is how she ends letter 3. The poems are not asked to carry a burden of information: there's just enough in letter 1:

     You said, 'polonium, radium',
     and your tongue and teeth were yolk opalescent
     as if your speech were lit

It's in the 'New' poems that the first person reads as Jennifer Clement's own voice, a writer intent (with recurring images of water and swimming) on discovery and clarity:

     I want to dip my face into the lake of your back
     and feel your vertebrae
     like stones, uneven stones, on my cheek.

Her effortless (seeming) writing's a rare pleasure.

         © Jane Routh 2008