It's All in the Title
A Scarlet Thread, Elizabeth Burns (10pp, £4.00, Wayleave)
April Fevers, Mary O'Donnell (85pp, £8.99, Arc)
Nimbus Movements, Debbie Walsh
(78pp, £8.00, Knives
Forks and Spoons)
Burns' poetic interests keep her very close to art and artists. She
interrogates art as a poet,
working in collaborative projects with painters and craftspeople to
add an extra dimension or view, through poetry.
Here is a new and exquisitely produced pamphlet of just ten poems, all working
off the title image.They are an homage to Scottish artist Anne Redpath
(1895-1965) and a delving into what made or helped her, to paint in the
distinctive way she did. The simple title image comes from Anne's childhood
memory of watching her father, a tweed designer, as he wove. She was struck
by a surprising red thread that ran through the apparently dull, grey cloth.
The image stayed in the growing artist's imagination and had a lasting impact
on her work.
The poems trace how that vivid experience influenced her painting both
technically and emotionally, whether it be border landscapes or domestic
still life pictures. The memory becomes the cue and signature for unexpected
outbreaks of colour, that shout out for verve and boldness and add extra meaning
and narrative. This is what the poet sees in 'Painting the Borders in Wartime
1 (Landscape with Mill, 1918)':
But here in the foreground,
glimmer of gold in the tree, a streak
apple-green on the ground, a foretaste
of what is
to come - the end of the war....
The sequence is a mix of biography and commentary on Redpath's life and work,
producing a descriptive argument for the importance of colour as a gesture
and an attitude to life; as a counter to darkness.
The pursuit of the single image becomes a problem for me in the poems which I
find over literal and too narrowly focussed. The message repeats itself and I
find its treatment too obvious. But
they have provoked me. Formally, they achieve a compression of detail,
background and foreground (much like a painting, I now realise) which, when
you look at the scope of information, and how tightly and lightly it is held,
is a feat of crystalisation, 'Her Eldest Son' and 'Spain', being good
examples. And subjectively, the insistence and singularity of purpose, forced
me to give more and deeper attention to the formative power of early images
on our perception and how we may be lucky enough to translate the best of
them into action. It's a simple idea, but that is Burns' gift, making it
Walshs Nimbus Movements looked very enticing: the equivocal 'nimbus' right there,
on the cover, with references to 'breathing' 'thunder', 'single notes' and 'pauses' in haphazard scraps of printed text. Opening
it, and reading a few passages, I could trust it, which was odd as it's full
of words no-one uses: 'vertriculous', 'hebenon' 'paretic', but that's always
a bonus. Something was already working on me so I moved to the sofa to become
immersed in a sensually spoken film. I can see, hear and touch it all. Is
that what's meant by 'making sense'? That's what it does, and my relief is in
the enjoyment of being able to read it with my body as well as my brain.
It's all written in multi-spaced, foreshortened word or phrase-lines, starting
anywhere, and falling down the page. This style often frustrates me like a
stop start fairground ride, where you get stuck and cant find a way in or
out. It makes you want to yell, but not this time. Walsh uses slowness,
resting places, physical detail, tumbling thoughts, the movement across
physical contours, the conversational shifts between sensation, observation
and insight and, above all settings - time and place. The writing is lived in, crafted and
tested - the skills of texture and pace hidden in the individual sound
values, the open vowels and sibilance sharpened by sudden hard consonants
giving it clear edge and structure. I find it sensuously and sexually active
on the page and love the way it meanders through ordinary moments, wide-awake
with confident brevity as in 'Gateway':
Apart from the astutely used concrete poetry effects, it's the tiredness of the first two
images, the hope elicited in
'and' and then the gap after 'everywhere' long enough for us all to look
round, searching for the antidote - but meeting only flatness - the end of
interaction, the moment of becoming invisible, silenced, disconnected. What I applaud is being given the
experience with the lightest of prompts - the poet's grasp of respectful
distance and the wisdom of word/space choices.
Here again, from 'Miasma Love':
Again, the picture on the page effect - those eyes moving from side to side.
The slippage is playful and serious, who or what does the watching, the
undressing? It reminds me of Freud's idea that whenever you have sex there
are four more watching. It also reminds me of the best of that
ground-breaking anthology Out of Everywhere edited by Maggie O'Sullivan.
But isn't Walsh's strength finding the right word and then refusing to
qualify anything? The whole project is naked.
This style has often made me drowsy. The spaciousness can make it sound flat
when read to yourself. I didn't tire of this at all, because Walsh's scenes
are specifically different landscapes, moments and tones. It doesn't go on. She
instinctively jerks away from monotone. I think it's difficult to make this
style work in a way that combines softness with intelligent realization where
neither dominates - and she does it.
© Sarah Hopkins 2015