Left Feeling Slightly Lyrical

One Eye'd Leigh, Katharine Kilalea (54pp, 9.95, Carcanet)
Beneath The Rime,
Siriol Troup (92pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
A Recipe for Water,
Gillian Clarke (80pp, 9.95, Carcanet)
, Jane Draycott (66pp, 9.95, Carcanet/Oxford)
48 Trojan Herrings & Tripidium,
Sophia Wellbeloved (114pp, 8, Waterloo)

The poems in Katharine Kilalea's debut collection, One Eye'd Leigh, are quirky and often mildly surreal. In the opening poems, the tone reminded me of Selima Hill, but there's something distinctive about it too, a real personality voicing the words, often bursting with enthusiasm, sometimes a little ditzy. Kilalea likes to qualify her adjectives to quote from several poems: 'left me feeling slightly lyrical', 'it's a little bit lonely', 'we all felt quite energetic', 'I'd scrubbed it very very white.' This might irritate some readers, but I found it engaging. The neutral tone that permeates much contemporary poetry isn't in evidence here.

Kilalea tells entertaining stories and makes unexpected observations. 'The conductor and the world in the wallpaper' begins with a conductor and orchestra onstage, his tuxedo splitting behind him. Reality isn't matching up to 'the delicate sounds/ he hears in his mind.' Instead, 'the French horn is grumbling/ like a shiny digestive system' and, as he makes his way home, the sounds around him are ominously melancholy. In his house:

      The violins! The violins!
      They had hinted at things to come,
      but the patterns on the wallpaper

      mean nothing to him. The ringing telephone,
      the dripping tap, the crickets...

It's a portrait of a defeated man who is no longer in control, not even of the sounds he was used to conducting. The poem is well constructed, beginning with the conductor waving his baton and ending with the 'dull and defeated sound' of curtains closing 'which cannot be drowned/ when held against his body.' The body language has changed completely. The images along the way are memorable and unusual, the movement well paced a good illustration of Katharine Kilalea's style.

Poems like 'Recycled small boys' and 'A knapsack for lovers' seemed fairly bland to me, lacking the surprise that characterises most of Kilalea's work, but even these less substantial poems aren't entirely unlovable.

The love poems towards the end of the book dissected a relationship effectively, such as 'The way we look is a game of chess', in which the way the parting lovers actually looked:

      was the very complex mathematical equation
      for loving a thing and wanting to be rid of it
      contained within something human.

Kilalea's ability to control pace, tension and timing combine in those closing lines, and the final mysterious image of moon-like, lit windows which concludes the book, from the poem 'Alfred,' has imbedded itself in my brain:

      and if you could take all the windows off this apartment building,
                they would become a pack of cards.

Siriol Troup provides great variety of subject matter in her second collection, Beneath the Rime: Auden in Venice, a black pudding in France, a tragic sleigh ride through the Arctic region, Dachau, and the 17th century Habsburg Empire all feature. The poems are narrated by diverse characters and more could have been made of that diversity. A singular voice is often lauded by poetry critics but I felt that an elephant, a Japanese horse and a Spanish princess ought to have sounded more distinct from one another.

Troup appears interested in revealing the world's true nature beneath its surface; dark undercurrents impact on human beings and on their relationship with the surrounding environment. 'On the Rocks' rehearses a well worn theme humanity vs. nature but succeeds in breathing new life into it, due to precise writing. Two nudists sunbathe on the rocks and 'make a fool' of the wrapped-up narrator, but the nudists are described in the second line as 'like mackerel fillets', a layered simile that describes both their physical posture and their helplessness. The nudists are 'keeping faith with the earth', without a care in the world, when storm clouds rush in. The narrator zips up her fleece and notices:

                                                  two small dead
      puffins on the rocks, their bright beaks chinked
      like cups, and all around, the sand as sharp
      as chopped-up fingernails varnished a shocking pink.

The tables have turned, and these closing images are also cleverly multi-layered. The beaks are chinked like cups, the sand is like varnished fingernails nature threatens with a tawdry human face; the human sunbathers who have gone natural become the victims of nature. What seemed like a pristine scene is unravelled and laid bare.

A similar ability to reach beneath the surface, this time to uncover the inner thoughts and emotions of a character, is evident in the final sequence, set in the 17th century, concerning the Infanta Maria Teresa and court painter, Velasquez. The tragedy of the story is brought to life and feels satisfyingly three dimensional.

A few poems in this book were less successful. The poems on Dachau represented a well-meaning but inadequate response to horror, and a few poems built around the theme of memory, like 'Old Salt' and Wood-Burning Stove', were fluently written but too predictable. However, I enjoyed most of the collection, especially 'Motorway Bridge', in which a bridge made of foliage becomes the focus of a reflection on public issues. Animals cross it:

      deluded into thinking their fragmented space
      is one big happy joined-up world
      whose heavy metal roar is just a background noise
      we're all immune to now...

Water has become a popular subject for poems in recent years, the most high profile collection being Sean O'Brien's double-award-winning The Drowned World. Water is so packed with big, life-and-death themes and metaphorical possibilities that many poets must find it hard to resist. In Gillian Clarke's A Recipe for Water, streams negate themselves and yet find their destiny in rivers, global warming loosens the grip of ice and snow, water refreshes, asserts mortality, sings, and speaks a multitude of languages. Clarke is Poet Laureate of Wales and several poems directly address Welsh concerns.

I liked the opening poem, 'First Words'. The poem examines, with great sonic awareness, the language of the natural world;

                                                          the steel slab
      of a syllable dropped at the docks; the two-beat word
      of the Breaksea lightship; the golden sentence
      of a train crossing the viaduct.

There's subtle movement from one stanza to another, the fruit of an alert mind, of a quiet voice with something to say on the page about where significance lies, and 'before you know it you'll know what comes/ from air and breath and off the page is all// you'll want.'

However, the quality of poems in this collection is inconsistent. Clarke's vocabulary is plain, the syntax generally straightforward, and she communicates clearly and directly. The problem comes when what's she's saying lacks interest. 'Glacier' is a good example. A Greenland glacier's slide towards the sea is likened to the Abervan tragedy when a slag-heap rolled down a hill and crushed children in the local primary school. 'The century of waste/ has burned a hole in the sky over the Pole,' we're told (who needs to be told?), and the internal full rhyme is needlessly attention-grabbing. The poem closes with an appeal;

      Oh, science, with your tricks and alchemies,
      chain the glacier with sun and wind and tide,
      rebuild the gates of ice, halt melt and slide,
      freeze the seas, stay the floe and the flux
      for footfall of polar bear and Arctic fox.

I suppose the prayer to science could be seen as cleverly ironic but, for me, the formal, prayerful tone and self-conscious sonic effects fell flat. It's saying a) global warming is bad, and b) O Science, please stop it, which hardly seems worth a poem. A few other poems also lacked resonance (e.g. the sonnet to Nye Bevan, and the riff on the shipping forecast).

This is a shame because there are fine poems in this book. In 'The Accompanist', a singer becomes melded with the song, 'with something like grief, like joy/ and is more than music'. That the transformation is convincing is down to the skill with which Clarke handles the poem's progression, and in the title poem, dedicated to the poet, Sujata Bhatt, there are great lines and provocative insights, such as this passage on a couple of swans;

      wings and necks folded in one dream,
      and all the colours of white, which only seem,

      Sujata, the very opposite of the blackness
      of your black squirrel in Caracas,

      but are the same, the one
      white rainbow, black, one spectrum.

Reading a Jane Draycott poem often feels like entering a cinema halfway through a movie. You're thrown into a scene without the benefit of back story or character development and any clues only make you curious about how much you don't know. Her fifth collection, Over
, invites the reader to step over thresholds where the unknown becomes at least as important as what's evident.

'Technique' expressly utilises a cinematic trope;

      Walk slowly round it, then picture yourself
      in one of the rooms. Now move through
      the rest of the house as if you were a camera.

But this is no ordinary house. Every 'room' contains an image of women caught up in urban disaster a lost and troubled heroine in a slum, the shattering aftermath of a tornado, ominous Hitchcockian symbols, a flood and the poem closes with 'you' being directed to the original room, 'the one with the mirror, then look outside/ at the men circling the house, the one just leaving.' The poem details a self-discovery technique, but the self is troubled and the final image of the men vying for access to her consciousness is disturbing, to say the least.

The poem blurs the line between dream and reality, the internal workings of the mind and the external world. In that, it's typical of many poems in this collection, where motivations and destinations are unclear or mysterious. In 'The Hired Boat', a boat sails from expansive chaos. The rowers tell each other stories. They continue into darkness, each stroke like the 'turn of a page', until they enter distant shallows where the boat becomes;

      no more than a leaf or the eye of a bird

      which drank at the glittering throat of the flood
      where it narrowed to only a single word.

The technique of leaving narrative gaps to set the imagination to work can only be effective if there is sufficient intrigue in the first place, and most of the poems in this book were well worth reading several times.

The final third consists of poems based on the international phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Charlie, Delta etc), which initially seemed like an weak idea to me, but the poems work all the same. The fragility of existence is central: people and things come and go, appear and disappear in darkness and flickering light. The meditative tone, the clever rhythms and music, an intellectual rigour, and an attuned sense of timing, combine to make this collection an unsettling and absorbing experience.

The opening 48 poems in Sophia Wellbeloved's 48 Trojan Herrings & Tripidium are split into two sections and the first section starts fairly brightly with intelligent, at times mind-bending, reflections. Her untitled poems document fragments of memory and observation, centring on the perceptions of the narrator. The poem which begins 'Subjects go by like minor stations as/ my memory speeds through' slips from past to future and back again. It finishes;

                                               ...I am the
      thread and not the threader nor the bead
      maker, I snake through collecting and
      connecting unable to reorder, sometimes
      able to chant the beads, sing their passing.

I read that as a statement of poetic method. Sometimes it works well both when the poems are in reflective mode and when they turn anecdotal or humorous, as in these lines from the long poem in the third section, 'Tripidium', when the narrator talks of staying with;

      my aunt who installed new ventilation
      in my already cold house by having holes
      drilled in the floors, but she was kind
      and spent time with us, doing crosswords
      and visiting graveyards

There always is a risk of becoming solipsistic when writing poems so centred on the self and that's what I began to feel was happening in this collection. In one poem, the addressee pulls out his own toenails as a kind of endurance test. The narrator suspects that all can't be well. The addressee had previously spent time with the narrator, editing her thoughts on a piece of paper, and the narrator comments;

      ...I don't expect ever to be
      happier than then, or more loving or
      more loved.

The reaction to the toenail extraction is measured, calm, flat, ultimately self-absorbed, and I felt that I was being kept continually at a remove from anything real. This, and too many other poems, weren't demonstrating the incapacity of words to size up the real. Rather they demonstrated how easily words can be manipulated to avoid genuine confrontation with reality.

The 'Tripidium' section of the book is centred on an ancient liturgical dance, the 'tripidium', two steps forward and one back, which forms a kind of rhythm for life. The first main image, of people and events stored in a 'dark larder of jars', is a great idea, and there are a few interesting narrations and ideas in the poem, but much of it is pretty turgid for example, the psychobabble on parents who are:

                                      ghosts of their functioning, held
                             prisoners in a Grimm spell, terrified of
                           their own lover, who is part their parent
                             part their child and whose rages mirror
                                       their own of which they are also

The final section of Tripidium is on the Adam and Eve story, but a revisionist version in which 'suffering and joy/ were no longer classified separately/ or experienced sequentially, but/ flowed together through them at/ all times, but the shock of this/ understanding numbed them,/ they rejected suffering and so/ lived in fear of it/ their fear became/ a dread of life...' This felt like a sermon and, indeed, given the random line-breaks, much of the book might have been better written as prose. It may appeal to readers interested in a certain kind of esoteric contemplation, but it wasn't for me.

         Rob A. Mackenzie 2009