Living and Dead, Land and Sea, Feathers and Fins

Planet-struck, Julian Turner (62 pp, £8.95, Anvil)
The Gift of Boats, Jane Routh (62pp, £9.95, Smith/Doorstop)
A Dart of Green & Blue, Elizabeth Barrett (63pp, £7.19, Arc)

I'm slightly frustrated with Julian Turner's third collection, and it's difficult to articulate exactly why. Like all of these books, it looked to be 'my bag' in theory. In reading it, though, one question kept coming to mind: what makes a poem a poem? There might be no definitive answer, but a few things crucial to my enjoyment of one are specific language, rhythm and sonics ('music') and imagery (not just imagery, but striking imagery, and enough of it). Many of Turner's poems employ blank verse, and for me, they're often most successful when this is combined with short-form. That brevity allows images to pack tightly together, like atoms which amount to something we can grasp. Here is the entirety of 'Virtue', a striking vignette whose details suggest a chilling back story:

     The torturer looks down and sees the child.
     The freckled hands adjust the bruising rope.
     She hangs by one wrist over bottomless
     abysses and his face fills her with hope.

In comparison, longer poems sometimes feel rhythmically flabby, their language bland, their images unfocussed, even absent. The subject of 'Ghosts', for example, presents a challenge. How to paint an image of a ghost? One answer is to make use of concrete description of its peripherals: creaking doors, billowing curtains. Another is to avoid the kind of language Mr. Average Joe might already use about ghosts (like 'creaking doors' and 'billowing curtains'). I can't help feeling that the first stanza does neither. I'm not sure what's happening in it. Or rather, I am: ghosts are doing ghostly things, slipping between worlds, as they do. And yes, I know - descriptive poetry isn't in vogue these days; we like to look not at, but through things. Still, everything worth saying is made of detail. This was just a few abstractions, clichˇs and double negatives too many:

     Good for nothing, they sit around the fire
     they cannot feel and with their feather touch
     try to pry the angle of the intersect
     between the worlds to find their way back in...

The ghosts go on to '...shift like smoke / and when we look they are not there.' The less said about that the better (which is apt, since it's apparently the philosophy driving the poem, one that's not interested in solving the problem inherent in its subject: how to write well about the invisible?). Turner finally 'name(s) their names' in the last stanza, and quite beautifully, but it's too late. His ghosts are often more successful when they appear as human beings, like the father of 'At the Pagan Sites'. Peopling a poem is difficult, and he does it well when the father appears 'wearing the clothes of sky, / his wet shirt flapping scarecrow-like, a kind / of corposant appearing to illume.' 'Ghosts' just doesn't pull the same weight.

Other poems have similarly false starts. 'Cadaver Dogs' has dramatic promise, but its first quatrain simply tells us that owners have taken their dogs to sniff out dead bodies, and that slightly bland information is in the title. I wanted it illuminate instantly, not start up slowly like a vintage car. I was too easily reminded of better attempts at the 'excavation poem' by Seamus Heaney or, more recently, someone like Victor Tapner. It's all the more annoying when Iambic Pentameter and end-rhyme are employed, so that you're left wondering whether this poem actually wanted to be a sonnet:

     The dogs have led their handlers to the site
     and faithfully revealed the evidence:
     whatever it is they find they bring to light.
     They trace the truth by following the scents.

Metrical, rhyming poetry has no wiggle room. It needs to be image-rich and cautious with abstractions or it just plods away, prosaically and for too long. What is this site? What is the evidence? What is 'Whatever it is'? What is this truth they trace, and is it so elusive that we can't start digging it up in the first stanza? These questions are answered later in the poem, but why not start there? How much better handled - no pun intended - is Turner's hint of excavation in 'Memento', which sees the absence of a loved one in a piece of market pottery? How much more effective is the gently-does-it horror of 'Virtue'?

Planet-struck is about influences: the planets' upon us, a father's upon a son, DIY manual upon handyman, the dead upon the living, water upon land ('Appletreewick' is an effective short poem) and nature upon us ('A Nightjar' is another). Its accessibility is good news for those bored by over-cleverness, and I'm all for poetry that makes sense to real people. That's more than enough to interest me in reading Turner's previous two collections. It just didn't arouse my spirits, even as it aroused some of its own. It floated my boat a short distance.

Speaking of boats, the strength of imagery, quality of line and rhythm, and sheer exuberance of language at work in Jane Routh's third collection The Gift of Boats, hit me immediately. Look at the strange items making this ethereal schooner sail:

     Better scuttled than filled with earth
     and concreted to a square lobelia sea
     with waves of white alyssum under the bow
     and - in place of mast and shrouds - poles
     for runner beans, tall dahlias
     where you'd want to see red sails...
          [from 'The Afterlife of Boats']

The power isn't in skewed or showy phrasing as much as in carefully-chosen details, telling words: 'shrouds', 'runner beans', 'tall dahlias' - this boat seems made of the specific memories of a life that has passed away. Boats carrying the spirits of the dead are famous from Greek to pirate to popular culture, and on. Here though, these spirits are real people we've known, remembered in the small flotsam and jetsam of our lives, in mundane errands like fishing and foraging: 'You can always find broken planks / among boulders on the shore, like those / I collected near Auliston Point... all too beautiful / to be of use. I left them to the air.' That sense of otherness which resists description is also here in the humour. The title poem's first line is just about to reach blue depths when it's pulled back, in the second line, to give us the kind of smile which is in itself part of treasured relationship: '
A present, you say, fishing out of the blue / carrier bag a small oar, and another'. The poem goes on to describe the gift of a model boat given by a 'you' - possibly the poet's mother or father, though we're not told; you might want to imagine it's yourself, the reader. That this gift has emotional value is obvious - we can tell from the poem's list of lush descriptions, which open out to become markers by which we map the imagined character of the boat's maker - but Routh leaves it to us to imagine why. She refuses to elevate the souvenir, which is just 'like those two up on their cradles / re-glued and made ready for sea, / £3 each from the junkshop, and underpriced'.

Similar delight in the poetry of lists can be found in 'Sabbath', where even the names of boats, as well as being beautiful in their own right, contribute meaningfully to the theme. Even the sky holds its own gifts:

     Boy Andrew, Nil Desperandum and Kestrel,
     the Harmony and the Welcome Home
     tide-rode at their moorings
     under a sky the colour of mussel shells.

There's always a danger that poetry like this - domestic, dedicated to a loved one's memory, autobiographical - can seem cloying and sentimental to an audience which is distanced from its emotional centre, so I'm glad for instances which seem conscious of this difficulty. One of them is 'So How Much is Invention?' in which the speaker admits, almost embarrassingly loudly: 'Autobiography amazes me: / how did you get it right, Charles, /
grasses bright and erect at Desenzano / some forty-five years ago.' The poem addresses Charles Wright and there's a sense in which, knowing autobiography's dangers, Routh is asking Wright for guidance even as she carries on regardless. The overt 'Autobiography' draws on - and is subtitled - The Million Women Survey 2009/10, a collaborative project on women's health carried out by Cancer Research UK and the NHS. It plays with diary entry, desperately rambling on about the light, dark and mundane stuff of life as if there were literally no tomorrow:

    Warm, hot, getting very hot. I had a fall.
     Some things are worse than broken bones.
     I'm always asked about my blood relations.
     Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes; all those genes
     are stacked against me. Yes, I've had the tests
     and all the same, would say that I am happy
     slightly moderately deeply (tick) uniquely.

The collection's strength can be summed up in the final quatrain of 'They Visit Their Dead', in which the ghosts are our human ancestors: visual, sensual and physical. Unlike Turner, Routh doesn't try to 'name' them, only what they clothe themselves in (those peripheries I mentioned), but they somehow appear all the more human for it:

     The way the wind smoothes the seedheads and grasses,
     you'd think it was the ancestors turned their backs
     on us and our profligate ways, and wilfully cloaked themselves,
     with cocksfoot and catstail, burdock and brome.

This is going to sound extremely geeky, but one of my favourite things about Elibazeth Barrett's fourth collection is the way it's organised. The poems are placed under four section headings: 'Kingfisher', 'Gull View North', 'Penelope's Magpie' and 'Finch'. Delving into the sections was a lot of fun indeed, and it's immediately apparent that the book's main preoccupations, if not its theme - the dart of green and blue of the title - is birds and fish, real and metaphorical. The title poem of the first section, in which 'Barrett imagines her dying mother (to whom this collection is dedicated) transformed into a kingfisher', is quoted in the book's blurb:

     ... I waited. Watched. It only took one
     hour before a dart of brilliant green and blue
     flashed past me (going somewhere) and was gone.

Using wildlife to cast metaphorical light on human stories, such as happens here and sometimes in Routh, is hardly new. The reason I'm not complaining is that this Kingfisher is as real as the mother whose last breaths it illuminates; neither one is a cartoon. Several species of birds are used in the collection (I want to say 'referenced', but that sounds like we're talking about a twitcher's guide), each one for its unique visual, behavioural and metaphorical characteristics. I'm always impressed by poetry which, even when entirely human, isn't biased towards humans as if we're inherently special; poetry which doesn't just throw in the occasional flying or scuttling thing for convenient decorative effect. This respect for wildlife is inherent in Ted Hughes and - more recently - Matt Merritt, or John Burnside and Andy Brown's Goose Music. One box ticked for this book, then. I'm also impressed when sections are very distinct, so that each reads like a mini pamphlet of its own. This allows us to give each sequence proper attention as a piece in itself as well as in context. The second box ticked. Finally, I can't get enough of poetry about - or 'referencing' - the sea, so it'll be no surprise to learn that my favourite sequence was 'II: Gull View North'. Here are two stanzas from it. The first contains all the multi-sense, physicality and spirituality you could ask for (the last of which depends on the other two to work) as well as another list with metaphorical muscle. The second is a microcosm of the collection's interest in birds, fish and - last but in no way least - people:


     Pulpit Rock. Hallelujah. Dead Man's Bay. Sea-struck
          land with one bound stone on a shingle bank.
         Waves heave themselves onto the beach
          and pull back. She can hardly stand - picks
          her way through pebble heaps dragging at her feet.
          Above the clatter disturbed stones whisper:
          here is the way to slowly end, to disappear.


     She turns a bird's eye, rises with the skylarks over it;
          the island dips in a south-south westerly wind,
          a tethered moon lifting its bleached face to the sky.
          In Dead Man's Bay the wind drives lerrets onto cliffs.
          At the Island's tip a man sits staring out to sea,
          caught in silver light. His back has set to stone.
          He is counting fish: Mullet, Mackerel, Sea Bass.

This kind of poetry (if I can call it a 'kind') - love and loss, living and dead, land and sea, feathers and fins - can sometimes attract that neo-slur, 'mainstream' (codeword for 'bland and predictable'). Like Routh, Barrett is aware of that cynicism where, in 'Forest', she writes with a deadpan humour: '
Aren't the dead trees wonderful, he says. // And of course (this is a magic poem) / they stray from the path...' But, also like Routh, she then carries on regardless. All three of these collections are plain-speaking to varying degrees. They're unashamedly concerned with human life, feeling, and the close observation of real things. They're not that interested in playing academic/ experimental (delete where appropriate) linguistic games with their readers. And yet, 'mainstream' vs. 'demanding' - often fought by critics needing to justify what they as individuals like and don't like - is a grudge match I'm not particularly interested in. This kind of poetry demands nothing other than that we observe our world more closely, think on it, feel something for it. It celebrates the lives and loved ones of the real people critics call 'readers'. It's (to use another dirty word) life-affirming. I recommend all three books on that basis, but I'm flying the flag full-mast for Routh and Barrett.

       © Mark Burnhope 2011