An Itch in the Soul

Soul Keeping Company
Lucie Brock-Broido (160pp 9.95 Carcanet)
Taller When Prone
Les Murray (86pp 9.95 Carcanet)
Song of the Butcher Bird
Gladys Mary Coles (64pp 7.00 Flambard)
Improvising Memory
Milorad Krystanovich (110 pp 8 Nine Arches Press)

Brock-Broido is an American poet, and this selection from three previous collections has been put together to introduce her work to British readers. Her style is closer to Wallace Stevens than William Carlos Williams, if that serves as a useful indicator. There are notes to assist the reader, and I like the way these have been kept together at the back of the book, so that the reader makes their own choice whether to access support or not.

The poems are strange but full of rich imagery. Sometimes it is that very richness which can dazzle and blind the reader. Take the opening poem as an example, 'Domestic Mysticism'. I read this poem as a hymn for Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath:
     In thrice 10,000 seasons, I will come back to this world
     In a white cotton dress. Kingdom of After My Own Heart

There are further references to Dickinson, or at least notions readily linked to her, and Brock-Broido draws on Dickinson strongly in the selections from The Master Letters,
which is a reference to some of the poems in letter form which were found amongst Dickinson's papers. Lucie Brock-Broido is interested in female experience and there is a stunning sequence in the voices of the conjoined twins who became elective mutes, June and Jennifer Gibbons. Extracts from their diaries are woven into the poems to good effect. Some poems seem to defy meaning but make their own music nonetheless, such as 'Housekeeping' while others are clear as river water, such as the title poem 'Soul Keeping Company' which draws on the ancient Hebrew belief that a corpse needed someone to sit with it, to keep the soul company on its journey out of the body. As a poet who prefers clarity when possible, given that words are blunt instruments, I find I number the less mystical among my favourites. Some of these poems serve as incantation rather than communication. Lucie Brock-Broido certainly works hard at what she does, she undertakes a great deal of research and is extremely well read. This collection will not suit everyone but I am sure Brock-Broido will find English readers who love her work as much as her American fans do.

Les Murray is a poet much more rooted in things than ideas, but Taller When Prone seems to me to be tackling some of the same large philosophical questions as Lucie Brock-Broido but uses a vastly different palette to express them. Murray takes us out of the library and its esoteric air, and into the Australian landscape with its harsher imperatives:

     Bluelookout is the colours and smooth
     texture of forest pigeons
     though its 'dirty' in some folds
     with scrub the older ones would have burnt.
           ('Bluelookout Mountain')

Although Murray tells it like it is and never spares the reader, there is a kind of wild beauty in his work which is always awe-inspiring. He is a watcher in the shadows, a cynical commentator who can surprise his readers with sudden poignant beauty, such as in 'Daylight Cloth':

     Minute blossoms of fruit
     emerge from lichen's brown wheeze
     that has gathered in their trees.
     Burnt-off paddocks have gone out

     and the sky is bluer for it.
     Beyond the sea coast, rebirthed
     four-wheel drives tilt, below
     on the tail ends of big seas.

Murray's editing of the scene leaves in the less romantic things in the landscape, like the burned fields and the four-wheel drive vehicles, and is the richer for it. I also applaud the way he moves from something small, the blossom buds, to a wide landscape seen from above, as though he is taking us with him as he looks first into his own garden, then casts his glance wider. The language is clear and deceptively simple, but closer reading reveals the metaphoric gift he has. The 'lichen's brown wheeze' is synaesthetic and it brings in a note of levity and joy, in the wheeze of laughter it suggests, from the splotchy shape of the fungus on the trees. The vehicles are 'rebirthed' because it is a new day. Notice too the subtle rhymes: 'fruit/out/it', 'wheeze, trees, seas.

Murray is always a witty poet, although the humour can be dark. I love this small wide poem about a crocodile:


     This police car with a chequered seam
     of blue and white teeth along its side
     lies in cover like a long-jawed
     flat dog beside the traffic stream.

All he says here is also true of police cars. The precision of the language is another joy. His poems about working life down under make me think of Eric Bogle songs, but more up to date, as Bogle often writes about the past working lives, not the modern ones with all their machinery. The searing loneliness of the rancher is the same, though.  For those who already love Murray's work this collection will add to your store of treasure. But I think it will also bring him new readers.

From America and Australia to something on more familiar territory: Gladys Mary Coles' latest collection reflects on war and its effects. She delves right back in time to the Cornovii, an ancient British tribe who lived in Shropshire, King Arthur, Offa, Thomas a Becket and so on, one poem opening out of another and taking us through history in small lyrics totally rooted in the landscape:

     The crags of Snowdon cry
           in creaking wind -
     does Arthur sleep within?
           Bones of sheep
         whiten the cwms.

When reading Coles, I always feel I am adding to my store of knowledge. She often writes about little known incidents from history, such as Cobbett arriving in Liverpool, back from America, bringing the remains of Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man. This tiny incident allows Coles a new angle on significant a historical movement.

Gladys Mary Coles cares passionately about poetry, as seen in her beautiful poem about Robert Frost and the way he encouraged our own Edward Thomas. These are two of my absolute favourite poets, and it is good to see them spoken about with such love and intimate knowledge of the work:

     New England to England, a road taken,
     seeking a heartland, arriving
     deep in a summer shire. He'd recognised
     someone on the same path, someone
     like himself approaching him. Oneness
     nurtured in words and silences,
     choosing a way through the trees.
          ('Robert Frost at Dymock 1914')

Coles lives on The Wirral, that magical archipelago between Liverpool and Wales, that borderland which boasts its Wilfred Owen connection with pride. One of the ways she acknowledges that is in a sequence of the diaries and extracts of an invented but representative character, Private William Manderson. Coles wrote the poems first, but has now produced a novel, Clay
, about this soldier. First World War soldiers were encouraged to write poetry as a way of coping with the horrors they were living through but not allowed to write home about - letters and postcards home were heavily censored, postcards were printed in advance with gaps for personalisation, but little could be added. The men used to score through some words to make their own message, a loophole they were clever enough to take advantage of.

Often the diary prose poems show the reader the writing process. For example, the sight od a dead shire horse occasions this short lyric:

     Last breath by, he's done with pain:
     Grounded, life slit away.
     First day of May
     He should be in an English lane
     Lit by spring, gentled by sun.
     I want to rouse him, speak his name.
This is an early poem. It is fascinating to see this character become more confident and developed in his work, until the last poem, 'The Stone-Mason', which is very accomplished and bitter:

     He's now at work in every town and region
     Inscribing names in stone. These names are legion.

Song of the Butcher Bird
gives us the human face of war, the experience of men, women and children, in the minutiae of everyday lives, just as Les Murray offers the minutiae of life now in Australia, a different kind of war. 

Staying in Europe, however, for the final book, Milorad Krystanovich was born in Croatia, but is a long time resident of Britain, and he now writes in English.   There is something of the in-between worlds about these poems. They are rooted in nature and actuality but they slip through the grasp, doing unexpected things with the material. Like Lucie Brock-Broido, there is something mystical here and once again I am reminded of Wallace Stevens. It's the poetry of gaps and photographic negatives, such as 'a gap between two rainbows' ('Escaping Emptiness'), 'A gaping hollow of a letter-box' ('Entitled'), 'surrounded by half-darkness' ('Hermitage') and 'under the pale distance' ('Today'). He favours, naturally, free verse, because that organic form is perfect for these cryptic and even vague poems.

To deconstruct a poem in detail I have taken one at random. 'Celluloid Collection' begins with a stanza about sound:

     Overpowered with voices, the evening air
     cannot record their contours,
     not even they could whisper
     to dislodge snow from the evergreen branches.

We do not know the subject of this stanza, what the 'their' and 'they' refers back to, unless it is the celluloid collection itself. Grammatically that does not quite fit, as 'collection' is singular and the pronouns plural, but it could refer to the photographs which make up the collection. The next stanza:

     But the winter hovers its soul-veil
     and examines the sound of the grass
     rising up in their footprints:

So the evening air and the winter are personified as trying to understand the photographs. The 'sound of grass' is silent or a whisper, linking back to the first stanza. The grass speaks in the third stanza, or is it the voice of winter?

     be still and draw your smiles,
     they teach you how to pose,
it is echoing from their footsteps.

So is the grass or the winter now to be heard in the footsteps of the photographs? I am not sure. Final stanza:

     Looking at the reverse of each photograph
     they both feel the influence of whiteness -
     the twisting path overgrown with flashes.

Again I am unsure what or who 'they' refers back to. Is it the evening air, the winter or the people in the photograph? We have a twisting path, grass, evergreens covered with snow, and possibly people in the old photographs. There are many beautiful phrases in this poem, as in many others, and there's a quiet music in the sibilance. It could be a failing in me, but I am just left feeling a little confused, and I am accustomed to reading poetry.

All in all these are four interesting collections which deserve to be read. They are not all to everyone's taste, but thank goodness poetry is a house of many rooms, with the bricks made out of words, the cement the syntax, the windows the stanza breaks, the heating the passion. We all have an itch in the soul and writing helps us to scratch it.

           Angela Topping 2011