Hearts of Oak
Boudicca & Co., Jane Holland [82pp, £9.99, Salt]
Fresh Fruit and Screams, Guinevere Clark [120pp, £7.99, bluechrome]
Uncertain Days, Gill McEvoy [32pp, £3, Happenstance]
Boudicca & Co. is an extremely powerful and varied collection. It took nine years in the writing, so is practically cask-matured in oak, a wood Holland is fond of, as a representation of Britishness, perhaps ('Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men' as the old song goes). For Britain, early Britain that is, runs through this collection so strongly that after reading the whole book in one sitting, I feel transported back to a time when Stonehenge was being created, or Boudicca was resisting the Roman invasion, and people still associated hares with magic as a matter of fact. Alongside poems like this, are marvellous explorations of womanhood, including birth, motherhood, fertility and sex. She can be witty as well as serious, for example her tour de force about performing poetry, after John Skelton, in rumbustious rhyming couplets, 'Night Blue Fruit at the Tin Angel'.
The collection is organised into three parts. My favourites in part 1 include 'It was cool inside the chapel', a tale of a relationship going quietly wrong when one person fails to appreciate the artwork the other loves. Everything is under the surface, and the colours of the art permeate the poem:
Later, we sat contemplating
the blue mosaic of fish
in one of Braque's ceramics.
Nothing had happened.
One person had simply severed
from the other, side by side
in the brilliant aftermath.
The alliteration emphasises the contrast of 'severed' and 'side by side' subtly. The semantic fields of 'cold' and 'blue' which recur throughout the poem set the emotional temperature cleverly, and of course the connotations of 'blue' enhance the layers of meaning. Holland's work repays this close analysis.
There's a clutch of mediaeval-inspired poems which I love also: 'Love Song for a Gargoyle'; 'Green Man', in which she writes of a woman in love with this ancient English god'; 'The Song of the Hare'; and the lovely 'Gawain's Horse'. I am very fond of 'Gawain and the Greene Knight' myself and have written a poem from the old witch's viewpoint, but Holland's version is from the horse's viewpoint. It seems to me to get right inside the original and weaves an evocative description of the world as it was:
Morning. The road takes us again, my hooves
scoured by snow and blackened ice, burnt
like old pots on the fire.
It also shows how hard it is to be the one who has to watch a loved one undertake difficulties while all one can do is support them:
I see myself step numb under his dead weight,
Christ-like blood on my flanks, his severed head
bouncing against the saddlebags, hailstones
scattered hard as pearls beneath my hooves.
'The Wife's Lament' and 'Dragon Woman' (whose wings hide under her cardigan!) are also highlights for me.
Part two sees a more personal note make an entry into the collection. I feel at home here. Holland, like me, is a celebratory poet. The poems about her parents are honest and funny, as well as touching. There is no self-pity here, just memories, not all happy, such as the mad walks with her father: 'twin toddlers and a twelve year old, lost/ on the sheer hang of a cliff' ('Walks With My Father'), and the sensuous 'Whose Hands Were Made of Velvet':
He held up his hands
and they were the place of dreams.
Inside each hairy palm, small softnesses of bats
took root, clinging
with astonished intelligent feet
to a skin-space
sweeter than milk.
I interpret this as a little girl exploring her father's hands, the hands that care for her and gently lead her. Most of us can identify with this Ð it is the marvelling moment of realising that just as those strong hands have their softness, the man who is strong and powerful has his vulnerability. The poems about pregnancy and birth are exquisite, particularly 'Twins':
These lights above the bed are your first stars.
Urgent with milk-haze, you root
for the breast and I gather you in, begin
with your own names.
Another gem is the little comic moment describing how her daughter uses the same gesture as her mother used to, in 'Resurrection'.
Part three includes two sequences, one about books, 'Books at Auction', is in three parts. I love this poem. It's good to read a piece by another bibliophile who enjoys books as physical objects as much as I do. Second hand books with faded gold-tooled binding, foxed and written-in, are always more interesting than pristine paperbacks. She compares books to love, lamenting the mutability of both.
The major sequence which gives the book its title, appears here to conclude the volume. And what a tour de force it is! It tells the story of Boudicca, in her own voice, and is full of anger, tenderness, bitterness and sheer fight. Boudicca has suffered and is not prepared to acquiesce to any of it, so she resists the Romans and gives them a taste of Anglo-Saxon ruthlessness. In Holland's sequence, we nevr lose sight of her as a woman, for example the tender poem she talks about her baby son, who only survived a few days: 'the pale bluebell of his eyes/ closed after sunset'. ('Boudicca's Son') Boudicca could be an 'everywoman' figure, who is expected to take her punishment but rises above expectations and seizes power, even if this can be only short-lived. That flash of rebellion is what makes her an interesting character but this sequence reminds the reader of what women suffer in war, simply by being there: her husband does not comfort her when the boy baby dies, her daughters are raped, she is lashed for resisting, then doing the unexpected and becoming a war leader, when she rises out of the ordinary to become man-like, predatory. The compelling narrative sustains the sequence and takes the reader on a journey. This collection is outstanding.
Guinevere Clark's first collection is very different in tone to Holland's work which is muscular and spare. Clark revels in language, sometimes to excess, as her poems offer one startling phrase after another, like a poured-out tube of Smarties, dazzling with colour and flavour but not to be devoured all at once. There is no oak here, more like brightly-painted and even a little gaudy boxwood. At times, she runs the risk of losing her reader, as the narrative thread is lost in a pool of phrases. For instance, 'The Last Supper' leaves me wondering who she is eating with, why she is kissing someone whose teeth are like 'a stained mug' and why she is 'like a daughter'. However, when she makes herself too obvious, as in 'The Strawberry Cake' where she is using a nasty pie as an analogy for a lover, is a bit cringe-worthy:
... I thought you'd taste good.
But you didn't,
so I was sick.
I'll never see you again.
She may well want us to cringe, of course, but I didn't enjoy the emetic effect. Perhaps she just needs to rein herself in a little?
However, that said, there are poems here which I did enjoy. 'A Little Bit of Oz' is great fun, because the situation is clear and allows the reader in. It is about Dorothy's longing for Oz, and when she is there, a longing for home. Or on a metaphorical level, how we long for excitement and just as equally yearn for a return to the safe routine which comforts us. The gorgeous phrases are there but there is a storyline to thread the beads together:
Surely they were waiting...
The little lily people,
the fat, gold feline,
the machine with a heart,
that lime-faced witch.
Clark also likes to use random rhyme, an enjoyable technique which makes the poems beg to be read aloud: 'How glad I am alone / grown / to watch these / violent systems / blossom. ('Returning to the Family Garden'). On the whole, this is an interesting first collection, but I will have more pleasure in her second one if she could share the meaning more with the reader, in her more obscure moments. On the plus side, she is innovative and in love with language. Her poems would work well read against a background of jazz music: they share that sense of playing on variations.
Uncertain Days by Gill McEvoy is about being tried and tested to arrive at a stoic endurance. She cared for her terminally ill husband, while bringing up her children, only to be later diagnosed with cancer herself. 'A Message to the Well-Meaning' articulates what many people in difficult circumstances might want to say to people who patronise them and tell them to 'be positive'. She says:
...I'm a hard woman now.
I am diamond, carborundum,
and I wipe out fools.
I found 'The Wayward Button' a moving narrative poem, in which McEvoy tells the reader about burning her husband's coat after his death. I like its honesty about how difficult the husband was to look after:
The coat was each Day Centre afternoon
when you refused t get in the car and I Ð
with murder in my heart, shopping to fetch,
washing to bring in before the rain,
dinner burning slowly on the stove Ð
would force you in, all sixteen stone,
then feel the scald of tears.
However, one button rolls away from the fire to land at her feet; this becomes a talisman: '...it goes/ everywhere with me. This is a fitting symbol of the remnant of love which still remains even after such difficulties and passage of time.
McEvoy has looked for consolation in nature and found it there. Her nature poems are some of her best. She also has a trick of using nature to suggest layers of meaning, such as the snail in 'In Gay's Garden' becomes a metaphor for survival: 'doing nothing/ holding on' and 'Lark' offers a symbol of lost love: 'All you can see now is the song'. There are also domestic poems, which all women enjoy: the sensuousness of kneading dough, the pleasure of jam-making in 'Bonne Maman'. If I have a criticism it is that the poems are conventional and could be more exciting in their linguistic choices. 'For Finbar' is one of the most linguistically interesting poems in the collection, although the use of stars is conventional enough, the poem has a lovely cadence and a satisfying balance in its antithetical stanzas:
The stars are like apples
crowding the tree.
You could have picked them on eby one,
kept them in your pocket
closest to your heart.
But it is I who watch the stars,
I, who cannot name them as you did,
and the pockets of my heart are filled
with holes, the bright apples
always out of reach.
McEvoy has found her consolation in poetry and, unlike some who may do this, has been able to communicate to others in a way which may well help those who suffer, but do not write, to articulate their pain.
I would like Guinevere Clark to bring some of McEvoy's clarity and directness to her work, while McEvoy could generate more excitement by drawing a little on Clark's drunkenness on words, whereas Holland has both the clarity for the reader and the mastery of language to say what she means in a way that makes the brain tingle with both shock and pleasure.
© Angela Topping 2007