CONCENTRATED EFFORT


THE NEVER-NEVER
by Kathryn Gray, 63pp. £7.99,
THE MIRROR TRADE
by ZoĎ Skoulding, 72pp. £7.99
SELECTED POEMS
by Christine Evans, 143pp. £8.99
all published by Seren, first floor, 38-40 Nolton Street, Bridgend, CF31 3BN.


Despite the firm accolades for this first volume of Kathryn Gray from the likes of Douglas Dunn and Maurice Riordan, it left me with mixed feelings. Here is a highly-trained talent; among her ‘acknowledgments’ is that to Michael Donaghy and his star pupil John Stammers. A poem like ‘Those Things I Carry’, and indeed several others, show the too-much influence of Donaghy: the clipped, even tight-lipped torturing of words in a line, into a line,

Here’s a word for us
- strictly untranslatable -   
having nothing of the kick of legs and stone as Babel
falls (and because of which you’d never hear in chapel)
from the softer tongue of a woman
who birthed to the world working men,
well-travelled down to black, carrying her pain ...
                                                      (‘The Cwtch’)

While a poem like ‘The Continents’ gets so oblique in its working as to become fairly opaque. On the other hand, the poem ‘You Hated Your Flat’ justifies Dunn’s plaudit of ‘delightfully accessible’ and Riordan’s comment about the whole collection as ‘a thoroughly twenty-first century debut’. There is a sense throughout the book of a young poet finding her feet in words
- experimenting but not innovating - showing influences and not always having too much of importance to say. But promise definitely meets with performance in the poem ‘Recess’ about life in the Civil Service:

The way light will fill and form this very office
that you see just now close in on you, as it is, left
to Whitehall’s forgotten months, the minister’s desk
brings back the sadness of the civil servant:
England happening somewhere down an avenue,
summers no more than a fountain pen, a billet doux
quite unbegun on the bed of a floral room,
hot as shame behind the sulks of a teenage girl.

Yes, of course, ‘England happily somewhere down an avenue’ is pure Larkin but the poem is none the worse for that. It shows
- as do others - an ability to suggest character with the briefest of brushstrokes and, via such depiction, to bring out the insights and moods of a way of life. Again, another interesting poem is ‘The Pocket Anglo-Welsh Canon’ which shows the poet’s wit at its best, veiledly critical, finding the just phrases for bitterness - a bit like R.S. Thomas. If Gray can strike a proper balance between ellipsis and encripsis her work should develop most interestingly.

The Mirror Trade
- ZoĎ Skoulding’s newest collection - is curiously objective: formal in tone without being too formal in measure. To use that critical cliché, it is a volume that repays reading: each time more of its quiet thoughtfulness revealing itself. The poem ‘Feathers’ illustrates the point. I should, of course, have picked up the clue from the tone of its first phrase / line, ‘No-one ever knew. A wreck, we thought...’ Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. Let me quote enough of it to help make the point:

         No-one ever knew. A wreck, we thought,
         a long way out at sea. We never found
         another body ...
         A foreigner, we were sure of it:
         his mouth didn’t look the right shape
         to have spoken our language.
         When we turned him over we found
         scorch marks on his back as if
         he had escaped a burning ship;
         what clothes he wore were soaked in wax ...
                           ... We guessed at candles
-
         frantically signalling at night ...
         we thought of a host of angels ...(etc.)

Though it says it nowhere, the poem is not about a drowned sailor or an angel, but about Icarus who lost his wings ‘beating towards the sun’.

Sometimes
- in a poem like ‘Feet’ for example - there is a sense of a conscious writing about a topic (like in a school essay): which is why there is a feeling that some of the poems are really exercises in informational strategy, if the phrase may be forgiven, rather than deeply felt eructations of the intellect and heart. Occasionally, however, such rise above themselves - despite their motive - and one example is the deeply ironical ‘Optimistic Poem’: a possible anthology piece. While the sequence ‘Sleep Inside’, mainly based upon the letters and diaries of Skoulding’s grandfather, enables us to participate in backward glancing at a vanished imperial world. Carol Rumens, whose opinion of poetry is always worth hearing, saw more in these poems still, speaking of a ‘truly contemporary sensibility’ and ‘Unfolding surprises but never withholding meaning.’

Christine Evans, whose volume of Selected Poems draws on four previous collections, is a mature poet with a beautiful womanly vigour in her writing (“Is it energy or faith / that breeds content in me?”). She writes both short and long poems; and in her long poems does not dilute the poetic intensity,

         Nothing so delicate as pleasure
         showed, although it surely flowered
         in the leafy summer evenings of her youth
         or berrying with her babies by the river
         when time flowed like a shining tune
         within the blackbird’s song ...

That is from her 1986 long poem about a shepherd’s widow coming to terms with her husband’s death. Then, from inhabiting the persona
of a shepherd’s widow, we next have Evans ‘loosening, her ‘voice / into the echoing vault of the ocean’ to become a ‘Whale Dream’ in which, singing, ‘I heard the closure of my notes grow tender / for the long pre-human clearness.’ So that, in all kinds of ways, we see this mature talent is protean as well.

Interestingly, the long poem-sequence, ‘Cometary Phases’, where a ‘winter of star-watching charts a son’s growth’, I found less interesting than ‘Falling Back’ about the shepherd’s widow. Persona
not personal makes much better art most times, and that is something contemporary poets should constantly ponder. Such a technique or approach involves a capacity for empathy, or entering-into-other, that Christine Evans seems to do effortlessly - if, occasionally, ridiculously when she writes in the short poem ‘Llyn’, ‘When morning comes at last / houses sit up with pricked ears / on reefs of land...’ Now and then, also, there is a hint of spiritual preoccupation as in the poems,

         What brinks, what late summer vistas
         We are all ripening towards
         As we wait to see, wait
         For the sun
         To burn a way through.

And another long sequence, ‘Island of Dark Horses’, each section of which is subtitled by the hermits’/monks’ offices of prayers; but her knowledge of divinity is more historical than experiential. Hers is an open-minded secular nature poetry that when it ponders ‘they’, who believed, writes,

                           ... they
- out of what they know is kindness -
embrace me and commiserate
for my lack of faith or fun
and I
- out of what I am not sure -
am silent, knowing only
time goes on
scraping the dust
from the stone, and from our faces.

Even empathy, then, is not enough to gain understanding? Still, she is an interesting poet. As all three poets reviewed here are, in their different ways.
        
         © William Oxley 2004