Window for a Small Blue Child, Gerrie Fellows
[80pp, 8.95, Carcanet]
The Night Trotsky Came to Stay, Allison McVety
[54pp, 7.95, Smith/Doorstop]
Hazard and Prospect: New and Selected Poems, Kelly Cherry
[174pp, $19.95, Louisiana State University Press]


IVF children are hard-won miracles of science as well as of nature and human love.  In Window for a Small Blue Child Gerrie Fellows charts the process of in vitro fertilisation to the moment at which the mother's body finds itself in possession of what it can recognise by deep instinct - that it carries a live, implanted embryo. Fellows, who has a daughter through IVF, finds language sufficient for both the tortuous, risky technology and the human drama of this in what is a spell-binding sequence of poems.

Couples who attempt IVF often find the minute attention focussed on their fertility almost unbearably oppressive; but here it is a revelation.  Fellows extends an intense bodily awareness back to the moment of ovulation with which the poem opens and then follows it through the bewildering maze of investigations and interventions to the point of knowing 'what it knows' without laboratory corroboration.

What is experienced in the body - the workings of glands, hormones and synapses - is inseparable from how we see and know the world. Although the IVF process heightens consciousness of minute chemical changes to an extent that can seem abnormal and alienating:

     as if the body had become gigantic
     and embryologists had taken the place
     of its thinking cells      
                 (from 'The Flowerings of the Possible, vii')

the flip side is an ecstatic awareness of  connection with the whole creation:

     Aphids gather on the last of the raspberries
     dusky red light falls on the garden
    
Codes pas along neural pathways
     hormonal codes enter the bloodstream

     The light shines on the late fruit
     the dark red berries    
the clustered
     follicles of the ovary
                        (from 'The Lily and the Egg')

The possibilities of human reproductive technology have brought a fiercely intensified experience of longing and hope, loss and requital.
Window for a Small Blue Child is a love poem in which the human couple, painstakingly re-encoded molecule by molecule, yearn for their unborn child, a tantalising yet sustaining possibility for which they are prepared to sacrifice as much as they have to for as long as they can. Although the book is essentially a single narrative, Fellows uses an open-field layout and minimal punctuation  which never sacrifices the sense of the moment.  Gwynneth Lewis memorably employed a similar structure to write of space flight in Zero Gravity; and these books both do similar pioneering work, of coming to poetic terms - in the body, the mind and the ear -  with ways in which technology has expanded human possibility. The books have a similar feel, too.  In medical imaging a few cells assume the appearance of vast lunar landscapes. Seen under a microscope a testicular biopsy, for example, reveals

     a complex membrane of gullies and rock-fall
     mountain debris
     shed from the surface into the lumen
     a journey through glacial moraine
                        (from 'Blue Mountain Postcard: Six Slides from a Testicular Biopsy')

Gerrie Fellows brings to her poem an encompassing geographical sense which relates to her own family history (explored in depth in her earlier book
The Powerlines) - born in New Zealand she now lives in Scotland. As in that earlier book, she embraces particular knowledge and specialised vocabulary - a vital part of Window for a Small Blue Child is the glossary of terms she provides at the end.

Window for a Small Blue Child is an exciting and important book that extends the territory of poetry, and although the processes it describes are often tedious and stressful for those who undergo them, Gerrie Fellows' writing is never less than compelling.


Allison McVety's The Night Trotsky Came to Stay looks to the past rather than the future. This is Gerrie Fellows' window from the other side - the daughter peering into the past to wonder at the magic of her own making, imagining how her parents' first meeting

     is sand
     through an hourglass, running from her

     to him. And I am there too, ghosting the wall,
     a smudged image pressed flat on paper,
     sifting the grains, watching time and again
     the atoms of my own clock forming.  
(from 'Going Back to Charlotte Street')

In this collection the past has a physical pull, a drag like the bodies of suicides in 'Ship Canal' which grow 'Bigger than when they went in', feeding the young McVety's dreams of 'gold barges oaring their way to Avalon,/feluccas...or the final blaze of longboats' before they are brought ashore stinking, and rotted to nothing.  Her relationship to the past is thus ambivalent.  There is something compulsive about it, as if it seduces, and demands too much, and leaves her feeling slightly cheated. 'Bronze Age Skull', which is essentially a descriptive poem, ends with the lines

   ...   And it occurs to me
     with others' hands cradling,
     cupped against accidental fall,
     that her head, hollow, carries
     more weight than mine.

McVety has a palpable sense of legacy, of family expectation and social precedent. In 'Women at their Gates' she describes growing up in a neighbourhood of housewives;

     padlocked to their kitchen lives who taught us
     how to wait and what it meant to go

and in 'Living up to Ronald Coleman' her younger self comes home after midnight and inches self-consciously past the photograph of her father in uniform, who

                                         gassed
     and shot, stands his watch for me,
     always expects much more than I am.

The poems are full of women knitting or stitching, mending, making the best of things; of pubs and pavements; and heavy mineral substances - chalk, soil, silt, coal. They speak unmistakeably of a particular phase of British history, the baby-boomers growing up, heavy industry gasping its last, the nuclear family still the norm, Manchester emerging from post-war austerity and surviving the blast.  Taken as a whole the collection adds up to a more than personal reflection on the persistence of history.  The last line of the last poem - 'Still Life - William Scott RA (1913 - 1989)' - speaks of 'the layers of old ground that season the pan'; which sums up the flavour of McVety's own art as well as typifying her gift for a memorable image. The quality of her ear invests commonplace things with resonance, and the intensity of her focus conveys sometimes abject tenderness.  This is an admirable collection of well-made poems.


Kelly Cherry's Hazard and Prospect is a 'new and selected' covering a period of thirty-three years. The blurb claims that 'Cherry presents a lifetime of powerful writing that coheres into a single, seamless work', and the selected poems are taken out of the chronological order of their first appearances and rearranged in thematic groups under jaunty new headings - eg. Lady Macbeth on the Psych Ward, Life in the Twentieth Century. The 'new' element of the book consists of a handful of short poems of place and a long prose-poem charting Cherry's late found domestic happiness on a farmstead in Virginia.  

Kelly Cherry writes best where she has a simple strong emotional engagement - in particular, in a handful of poems relating to her parents, and to her first marriage, though many small press magazines routinely deliver dozens of poems at least as decent on similar themes.  Generally though, I find Cherry's writing pretentious.   Take this for example, which first appeared in the collection modestly entitled
Death and Transfiguration (1997)

     Miracle and mystery
          Are swans mated
     For the whole of history,
          Their pairing fated.

     The bread we cast upon the waters
          Is what they live on.
     They are not martyrs,
         Though they dive down

     And down, through dark green depths, to find
          Love in a lake.
     Their movement ripples the mind.
          They love each other for our sake.

     If one dies, the other grieves
         Itself to death.
     Two lives,
          One breath.
                    (from 'Miracle and Mystery')

After repeated attempts to find something positive to say (the book has a nice picture on the cover, the typeface is good, the paper quality is wonderful) I have to own up to finding
Hazard and Prospect immensely dispiriting - except in as much as it refreshes my faith in the most basic advice given to beginners: use rhyme carefully, avoid abstractions as a starting point, and even - yes please - show don't tell.

      Meredith Andrea 2008