-Reviewed by Sophie Mayer-
The four 2011 Poetry Business prize-winning pamphlets, chosen by Carol-Ann Duffy and published by Smith/Doorstop, set out their ambitious stall in their titles: Kim Moore wonders If We Could Speak Like Wolves; Julie Mellor imagines Breathing Through Our Bones; Suzannah Evans names our Confusion Species; and Rosie Shepperd looks, paradigmatically, for That so-easy thing. These are prize-winning, widely-published poets, three of them with degrees in Creative Writing, whose titles suggest the range and facility of their verse. Given the career trajectories of previous Poetry Business pamphleteers, these four poets seem destined for prominence in British poetry. Their concern with the relationship between the human and the natural world, engaged via a combination of poetic impressionism and scientific vocabularies, reflects a dominant trend in the British mainstream, as does the ability of all four poets to shift from a modern use of conventional poetic mise-en-page (left margin stanzaic poetry in prosaic syntax and punctuation, rhymed or half-rhymed) to modernist mise-en-page such as prose poems and breath lines.
All the familiar modes are here, particularly the confessional rendered oblique by thick description à la O’Hara. Shepperd’s ‘I start to understand yellow,’ a poem for her grandmother, not only rhymes ‘Jensen’ and ‘less than,’ for an inappropriately Bacharach and David feel, but builds its affect from the exoticism of casuarinas and Verna lemons that she associates with her grandmother’s memory. Also common are the lightly surreal persona poems that speak for the supposedly mute, whether archaeological remains or animals. Perhaps in imitation of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’, these poems often take the first person plural voice. But whereas Plath’s poem uses the plural to imagine the plural singularity of fungal consciousness as alternate to human, Mellors’ ‘Blackberries’ and Evans’ ‘Swallows’ use it as a workshop exercise. Morever, Evans’ poem revisits the pre-Darwinian theory that swallows overwintered in Britain: hard not to read this as a denial of migration and global interconnection.
‘That so-easy thing’ seems – across these pamphlets – to be taking the Western relationship between poetic self and world for granted, among other returns to the mood and mode of pre-twentieth century poetry. Animals are allegories, analogies, metaphors: the wolves in ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ disappear into a metaphor for a human heteronormative relationship, as the poem concludes that were wolfish behaviour (described in anthropomorphic terms such as ‘grace’) possible between humans:
…then we could agree
a role for each of us, more complicated
than alpha, more simple than marriage.
These are the wolves of Jack London: Others who offer moral lessons to humans (an outdated mode of thought exposed in Evans’ ‘North,’ in which a – presumably – EuroWestern woman receives a classic Dances with Wolves epiphany by living with the Sami, who are presented as dislocated from history, having “lost the future tense”). Moore’s poem’s romanticised yearning reinstates a sharp difference between (and therefore hierarchy of) human (EuroWestern) and animal (non-EuroWestern) that is simplistic, and deeply problematic.
Alongside these unstated, persistent ‘Lyrical Ballad’ values are the poems’ (again unstated) adherence to Wordsworth’s ‘natural language of men.’ ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ ‘imitation’ of wolfspeech (biting, smell) is told, rather than being shown through an apprehension or analogisation of wolfspeech that might alter poetic dictioning. Apart from the decision to eschew capital letters and all but the final period, the poem proceeds syntactically. Even Shepperd, who is least committed to the left margin, replicates the prosody of the middlebrow novel, with Sauvignons and beach holidays conveyed to the reader via direct statement and reported speech, reproduced in such a way as to suggest depth can be mined from their banalities. ‘For a while, let this be enough,’ her collection ends.
It’s that kind of bathetic understatement that repeats throughout these collections, undercutting their apparent ambition by remanding them in the space of the conversational, the domestic – more properly, the bourgeois – the familiar. All familiar charges against women’s poetry that are awkward to repeat, given that all four poets are female, and selected by Duffy, a path-breaking poet of female experience. Julie Mellors comes closest to the radical charge of Duffy’s daring – her crafty, precise speaking of the unspoken – particularly in ‘Autobiography,’ a poem that half-rhymes sister, grandmother, lover, another, Jack the Ripper, supper, mattress, ulsters to end:
… I’m the daughter
in this history of mothers.
Strong and clear – but also a re-statement of the material of the poem, an explanation of what it has already given us through its careful form. Closure, whether oblique or over-stated, is another trait common to these poems: the desire to deliver meaning directly to the reader omits the possibility of ambiguity across the body of the poem, and particularly at its conclusion.
‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant,’ Emily Dickinson famously wrote. Her poems were embedded in the domestic and natural worlds – and continue to scintillate by engaging the familiar through language that forces the reader to look again, to look anew, and to re-think relation. It wasn’t good business for Dickinson, who barely published in her lifetime. Conversely, these pamphlets are definitely poetry business: each of the poets has a firm grasp of the contemporary, and oft-garlanded, neo-Romantic mode, massed in careful observation and a strong commitment to a singular, unambiguous poetic truth stated in the clearest possible language. But the world is complex, fractious, ambiguous and open-ended: the gift of sight is present, but it needs to be extended beyond the surfaced neatness of these poems.