Lucy Harvest Clarke (90pp, £7.00, Blart Books)

Lucy Harvest Clarke's BABA joins three new titles - by Richard Barrett, David Berridge and Chris Stephenson - in the Blart Books imprint she co-edits with Stephen Emmerson. In an elegant pocket format, the cover offers an image of a bleak mountainous landscape in muted tones with the small figure of a woman in brightly-coloured clothes almost hidden in the bottom left-hand corner of the back cover. Whilst it's tempting to read this image as a treated photograph from the author's own album, at the very least it announces some of the concerns of the sequence in terms of its exploration of women's identity and its relationship to the world and to ideas of nature. More than this even, as the title suggests, BABA is also an exploration of the impact of motherhood on the author, and in this way, finds itself in the company of recent entries in this genre by experimental women poets such as Andrea Brady's Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (2013) and Catherine Wagner's Macular Hole (2004) and Wagner's edited collection (with Rebecca Wolff and Alice Ostriker), Not for Mothers Only (2007).

This observed, my concern here is less with examining how Harvest Clarke's work engages with this tradition, but to try and give an account of how it feels to read these remarkable poems. BABA
is a sequence of eighty-one  nine-line poems organised into nine sequences of nine poems each and this formalism puts it in the company of writers associated with the London scene of the eighties and nineties such as Robert Sheppard and Adrian Clarke, or with the more recent 'ninerrors' project of SL Mendoza. Harvest Clarke invests tension into her compact form with short phrasal lines each ending with a full-stop. Here is a complete poem from the fifth section: 'BABA comes home':

   You are en vitae.
   Articles our orphan.
   Ice blocks for a footstool.
   Keep your tiger at your footstool.
   And your craft in your head.
   Keep your beads in your bed.
   Out of reach of the children.
   For example night.
   Watches are over your garden.
         (p. 54)

Harvest Clarke achieves a distinctive, supple movement in these lines (and throughout) in the counterpoint between the variety of syntactic gestures and the patterns of repetition - whether they be lexical, syntactical, full- or eye-rhyme. The use of enjambment across the full-stopped line break in 'night. / Watches' is another key device, as are unexpected turns of phrase like 'watches are
over your garden' rather than 'watches over'. The effect of this technical approach is to create a gently ironising tone that at the same time makes these utterances feel almost unbearably contingent and vulnerable. Whilst the play between continuity and discontinuity approaches the virtuosity of Raworth's Eternal Sections, nevertheless these poems negotiate their subject matter with commitment. Domestic spaces and natural settings become the stages for tense stand offs with self and otherness as a new world is renegotiated through language:

   Here we let loose.
   Lay eggs and write.
   Here we stop and stand still.
   Stop it shrink from the touch.
   Self exposure the sacred services.
   Stop seer fascinus.
   Stand still from shrinking host.
        (p. 86)

In many places one feels that what is at stake is nothing short of the poet's continued survival as an independent entity:

   You put your whole self in.
   You take your whole self out.
   Glistening in the Siberian wind.
   All desire for company.
   Abandoned with alcohol. (p. 79)

Throughout the sequence 'Baba' as child is identified and qualified in various complex ways: 'Bed side of universe Baba is'; 'Baby steps Baba'; 'Baba plays spot the difference'; 'Baba still back at the BBQ'; 'Your blood Baba. / My fame'; 'Baba is in the time'; 'The heart cave Baba' and so on, at one point even becoming the Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore: 'Ya Baba yagged too soon' (p. 48). This almost cipher-like handling of Baba transcends an address to any unique individual and enables the poet to explore her experience on a wider stage, whereon the dramas of sex, relationships, drugs, art, politics and religion are all re-visioned through the lens of parenthood. This project is not without its risks, and if the poet recognises these: 'Retracting imagination. / Reality don't care about nothing' (p. 72), she also recognises the degree to which language is the means to mitigate and experience this risk safely: 'the language of this reality shows' (p. 39).

There is much else to admire in this work which is deeply engaged in poetic tradition at the same time as it radically reinvents it; offering a precise, completely integrated diction that is expressive without becoming sentimental or egotistical, and intelligently discriminating without becoming abstract. Harvest Clarke's achievement here certainly puts her in the top flight of lyric poets working in the UK today, and her work deserves the widest possible audience.

       © Scott Thurston 2014