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
into the fragrant
it's better than
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
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;
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
of Spring or of salvation in
my hands; so
I left it all unsaid
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
left no note, asked for nothing
forgiven, remembered or said
to mark her
life; expected none to sing
simply closed her eyes. Shed
the view, the
mountains, sky, the gentle stream
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
This is the
time of hafod: of longest days,
numinous with heat on dusty roads,
visions of tongues of flame.
This is the
time when we wake, full of the dawn;
stones of the house flexing with warmth,
stretching like catkins into the sun,
ripening to amber under the light,
with hawthorn scented ease,
soft as the
bread dough uncurling drowsily
indeed. At night the moon
milk-cream white as the linen sheets,
cool in the
heat, cotton on sun-baked skin.
hours of dark glint with a million
lantern the night, soften the sky
to an indigo
shawl, blanketing sleep.
This is the
time of summer: expansive days
light-grains into every cell,
like the sand
that insinuates itself into
our pores as
we walk the dazzle-soaked beach,
heat into our thirsty bones
sun-sap drenched to see the winter through.
© Belinda Cooke 2006