Particles of Life, Jan Fortune-Wood
[132 pp, 7.99, bluechrome]


Even before one gets involved with the poetry, Jan Fortune-wood's biography is decidedly 'colourful'. She completed a PhD in feminist theology at Exeter and then, in 1994 was among the first ordained women priests. However, as a result of a number of serious work-based assaults she grew disillusioned with her chosen vocation. Her four children have been home educated and she has written widely on education and parenting as well as prose and poetry. She also edits Coffee house Poetry and Cinnamon Press. In this substantial collection (over 100 poems) Fortune-Wood writes very much with her 'heart on her sleeve' exploring her childhood, motherhood, marriage and belief. By the end you feel you've been allowed to get to know her as a friend - as if you'd spent a lazy afternoon in her large farmhouse kitchen with the rich smells of home baking (children pottering in and out) as she tells you her life story. The strength of this collection is the way it allows the reader to 'work through' these experiences with her and to enjoy the book's concluding affirmation: belief in the rejuvenating power of the seasons' cycles, without the need for orthodox forms of Christianity. 

The first of the six sections 'So Much Raw Redemption' begins by exploring her relationship with her mother with some of her strongest poems. Sylvia Plath with her  'Medusa' poem, is like a bunny-rabbit in comparison, though Fortune-Wood's method is very different: a calm, understated telling it like it is, which is unutterably sad in conveying this destructive relationship. The ironically titled 'Motherly Love' concludes by powerfully describing the emotional damage she has suffered, describing how she still feels 'the shock/of acts of kindness' reinforced by subtle, plain diction: 'that were starker than pain/between us two.' 'Gladioli' works well by concentrating not on the mother's neglect but on her nurturing of the flowers.  You gradually piece together a character that is chain-smoking, paranoid, self-and suicide-obsessed. 'My Mother's Bath-time Daydreams' helps to round out this awful picture with a beautifully sinister description:

    She feels her mind bleed slowly
    into the fragrant fluid;
    it's better than sex
    imagining her death -

The only poem that doesn't work so well is 'Retreat' where the traumatic shifts a little too much into the melodramatic (lines like 'she stormed through life with threats of knives and guilt' and 'the open sewerage of her reeking past) but 'Closeness in a Cold Climate' is back on track with a conclusion almost too sad to read as she returns 'home' to scatter her mother's ashes:

     I can't say why I'll bring you here, to this coastline;
     grit to grit, the urn cool in my hands, to free your ash
     to mix with scum-cold sea, settle on sand;
     I'll breathe you in, the closest we'll ever be.     

The rest of this section provides a healthy balance touching on the arrival of and bond she has with her own children.

'My Last Unquiet Pilgrimage' deals with the rejection of her Christian past, her encounter with violence, and the way that has shifted her perspective. 'The Last Hour' is a moving poem which captures the tone of many of these poems where she has not yet come to terms with what's happened:

                  I was not yet in the grace of
     beyond faith, of Spring or of salvation in
     my hands; so I left it all unsaid
     and walked away. What is there to say?

The only difficulty that I have with this section in places is that though there is very noble stuff here it isn't always easy to relate to it. Poetry on leaving the priesthood is a bit difficult to sell beyond a very specific audience i.e. someone else who has left the priesthood (or possibly stayed in). This said, she does capture the inadequacies of blind belief well, such as in 'Red Shoes' where she talks of 'a fantasy God / offering flat pack redemption' in contrast to life with 'no instruction kit, / just a hand-made life of my own'. I had a similar problem with the poems on her attacker, perhaps due to her being too close to the subject matter: rather flat lines like: 'my body still haunted / by what I have escaped' or 'Of course it's not him, / but even so I tense'. Here the poems that worked best were those that prepare us for the affirmation later in the collection such as 'Shepherd's Bothy' where she breathes in the Celtic wind and 'traded hope for meaning' - simple diction to allow for complex interpretation. A standalone poem I particularly liked because it is so well crafted is 'The Last Inhabitant'. The poem describes the previous owner of their house. There is a definite rhyme scheme and a fairly regular metre, but like much of Larkin's poetry it all comes across rather unobtrusively - with the bonus of a really memorable concluding line:

     Broken, she left no note, asked for nothing
     to be forgiven, remembered or said
     to mark her life; expected none to sing
     in eulogy, simply closed her eyes. Shed
     the view, the mountains, sky, the gentle stream
     and slipped from nightmare into my ghost dream.

The remaining sections of the book become far more upbeat. 'Dowsing for Gold' is focused mainly on the craft of writing. She makes comparisons between her younger self and the person she has become, drawing on fairytales and myth - Proserpina, Penelope and Cinderella - to explore different selves. Creativity is something to wonder at. The poems are increasingly honed back with shorter line lengths and more emphasis on carefully thought out rhyme and more variety between end-stopped and run on lines. 'Only Women Can Cut Chillies' is mainly a sequence of love poems to her husband. Both of these sections have a number of very strong poems. 'Hope Like Blankets' is a seasonal diary that prepares us for the book's denouement where she finally seems to be putting her life back in place. The final section, 'How to Rise Again', is a title that speaks for itself. Now residing in the curative setting of North Wales the section is rich in nature poems, and Celtic rituals, expressed with a language of Keatsian sensuousness. Here to conclude is 'Beltaine' (presumably summer) from her sequence 'a Quartet of Celtic Seasons', which I offer as just a taster of the many beautifully cathartic poems of this last section: 

     This is the time of hafod[1]
: of longest days,
     of light, numinous with heat on dusty roads,
     iridescent as visions of tongues of flame.

     This is the time when we wake, full of the dawn;
     the granite stones of the house flexing with warmth,
     limbs stretching like catkins into the sun,

     flesh ripening to amber under the light,
     time elastic with hawthorn scented ease,
     soft as the bread dough uncurling drowsily

     until risen indeed. At night the moon
     is plump: milk-cream white as the linen sheets,
     cool in the heat, cotton on sun-baked skin.

     The short hours of dark glint with a million
     winks that lantern the night, soften the sky
     to an indigo shawl, blanketing sleep.

     This is the time of summer: expansive days
     of drinking light-grains into every cell,
     like the sand that insinuates itself into

     our pores as we walk the dazzle-soaked beach,
     sucking the heat into our thirsty bones
     till we're sun-sap drenched to see the winter through.


                Belinda Cooke 2006

 



[1] In traditional Welsh agriculture the summer farm is called Hafod