Bethany W. Pope's new collection contains six
sonnet sequences, all of which are built around double-acrostics. The
shortest, 'Three-Legged Crow', consists of three sonnets augmented by 5x5s (a
form of Pope's own creation which can best be thought of as expanded haiku,
with five lines of five syllables). 'Fox Cycle', 'The Metamorphosis of
Physis' and 'The Tower' are traditional sonnet crowns, while 'Double Helix'
pulls the tricky stunt of swopping the continuity of the acrostic from side
to side. The book's centerpiece, 'The Labyrinth' is an heroic sonnet crown
(i.e. fifteen sonnets, the last of which takes each of its lines from the first
lines of the fourteen sonnets preceding it) which is again built around a
double acrostic; each sonnet is prefaced by a short prose-poem and followed
by a 5x5.
If all of this sounds like literary showboating or the application of
technique for its own sake, fear not. Pope's craftsmanship, impressive as it
may be, is always subordinate to visceral content and emotional fearlessness.
'Three-Legged Crow' is good place to begin, for its playfulness as well as
its brevity. 'Crow is a God. Crow is not a God' reads the poem's subtitle,
and the first sonnet reveals the crow as a trickster. The ostensible story
Pope tells has the crow making creative use of a stolen piece of plastic and
the launch pad of a sloping roof:
Tin roof (rain
slicked) becomes a slide for him.
Over and over he
sits snug in the
launching himself off with a
Harsh, happy croak
at this new kind of flight.
Bu–uelesque imagery: strange yet somehow gleeful. Then you work out the
acrostic and read the 5x5 and the context changes; a dark undercurrent
emerges. The next two sections reimagine the crow as, respectively, a hero
and 'a small, impetuous God', but again meanings yielded up by the sonnets'
construction challenge and subvert the surface reading. The overall effect
is as if Ted
Hughes' Crow had got himself a punk haircut and started playing about with
the puzzle box from Clive Barker's Hellraiser. Yes, I know how demented that comparison
sounds. But Pope's poetry has that effect: it provokes the reader's
imagination into letting go of the guy rope and freefalling through a
skyscape of altered perceptions.
Once you've taken a short trip (in both senses of the word) with the crow,
don your stoutest walking boots and lose yourself in 'The Labyrinth'.
Exploring memory, psychology, persecution, religion, guilt, redemption and
eventual self-knowledge across 285 lines of poetry, Pope merges form,
content, imagery and mythology to achieve moments of dream-logic
juxtaposition that are often startlingly beautiful and conceptually
terrifying at one and the same time. The opening sonnet, on the narrator's
birth and formative years, is a particularly gutsy example and is worth
quoting in full:
I was born in North
with live-oak. Dens of fox
And wolf littered
the loam. My blood can't stop
language of this wild. A girl
Birthed in this
soil carries it for life. No
Ordinary span will
follow, for her.
Remember the foul
house next door where the
Necrotic lady was
found, babies from
clutched in her arms. They
Arrived home with
her in pickle jars. Small,
Dear creatures she
named and kept for years. I
Expect juice from
those jars, the hellish bog
They languished in,
seeped through me with each breath.
Open the door. Take
the turn to the right.
The 'turn', of course, also refers to that traditional to the sonnet form.
Here, it wrenches the focus suddenly and brutally from rural nostalgia and
empathy with the natural world to horror-movie imagery. The reader is still
reeling from the pay-off as Pope shoves them through the first door. Again,
perceptions have altered. Something real and unspeakably horrible is being
grappled with in the heightened reality of the poet's imagination. It's like
Alice through the looking glass as if Alejandro Jodorowsky had hijacked the
The spattering of movie references in this review are not accidental, by the
way. Pope's writing has an intensely visual quality. Her use of imagery is
strong Ð often unflinchingly so. Her ability to drill down into the depths of
the id and face full-on what she dredges up speaks of an inner strength as
well as a creative one. Undisturbed Circles builds on the stylistic and psychological
achievements of her previous collection Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books, 2013) whilst
striking out ever more confidently in her use of form. What for other writers
would be mere gimmickry is integral in this outstanding collection to an
overarching aesthetic. So many poets falter under the strictures of form;