Living and Dead, Land and
Sea, Feathers and Fins
Planet-struck, Julian Turner (62 pp,
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:
looks down and sees the child.
hands adjust the bruising rope.
She hangs by
one wrist over bottomless
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:
nothing, they sit around the fire
feel and with their feather touch
try to pry
the angle of the intersect
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
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
faithfully revealed the evidence:
is they find they bring to light.
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
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
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
scuttled than filled with earth
to a square lobelia sea
with waves of
white alyssum under the bow
and - in
place of mast and shrouds - poles
beans, tall dahlias
want to see red sails...
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:
Nil Desperandum and Kestrel,
and the Welcome Home
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.
are worse than broken bones.
asked about my blood relations.
yes, yes, yes, yes, yes; all those genes
against me. Yes, I've had the tests
and all the
same, would say that I am happy
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,
it was the ancestors turned their backs
on us and our
profligate ways, and wilfully cloaked themselves,
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
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 -
Hallelujah. Dead Man's Bay. Sea-struck
one bound stone on a shingle bank.
themselves onto the beach
back. She can hardly stand - picks
through pebble heaps dragging at her feet.
clatter disturbed stones whisper:
the way to slowly end, to disappear.
She turns a
bird's eye, rises with the skylarks over it;
dips in a south-south westerly wind,
moon lifting its bleached face to the sky.
Man's Bay the wind drives lerrets onto cliffs.
Island's tip a man sits staring out to sea,
silver light. His back has set to stone.
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