Mind the Devil, it's Skill that's in the Detail
Little Boat, Jean Valentine (80pp, $22.95, Wesleyan University
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,
then reconsiders its verb:
No, not drifting, I am poling
my way into
my life. It
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.
The anchorage again falls at the end of the poem:
as we were
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':
but I am 'alive'!
It's the same
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'
paddling in the lazy flow
The book ends with 'Where I live', an 8-pager which sets out like this:
I'll walk you
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,
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,
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
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):
want to move
The details are few, but recur. Clothes, sweeping, walking, writing are the
themes, more powerful at each reappearance. From 18:
I am a
You can wear
me and button
me at 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:
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
uneven stones, on my cheek.
Her effortless (seeming) writing's a rare pleasure.
© Jane Routh 2008