-Reviewed by Dan Holloway-
Dark Corners of the Land, Adelle Stripe’s third pamphlet issued under Geraint Hughes’ unctuously gorgeous Blackheath Books imprint, is one of those books I placed in front of me and, after cooing over the endpapers and production values, I opened and closed and opened and closed nervously. Stripe’s ‘Sacred Heart’, a beautiful, bustling, heartbreaking elegy to Paris from her previous pamphlet Cigarettes in Bed, is one of my very favourite poems. And having favourites is dangerous. You wait for that moment of disappointment, the confirmation that your idols have faded.
Fortunately, when I did emerge from Dark Corners of the Land, there was good news and bad news. The good news is that, in ‘Bad Blood’, the collection contains one of the best poems I have read in years. The bad news is that, as a reviewer, it is nice to be able to balance the positive and the negative of a book. And there really isn’t a negative here. Not even in the ordering of the collection, which is something I’m usually ridiculously fussy about.
Formally, Dark Corners of the Land shares the diversity of Adelle Stripe’s other work. There is everything from a ‘Dead Leaf Haiku’ to the gloriously sprawling ‘Bad Blood’. But this stylistic range hangs together perfectly within the context of the collection, offering zooms and washes within its single canvas.
At first, that canvas seems to be that of the rural idyll. But whilst there is sentiment, even a glorious sentimentality, about the land from which she chisels her poems, there is nothing idealised. We start with a tiny detail, a rabbit savaged by myxomatosis and dogs, served up to the narrator of ‘Reward’: “still warm, / the blood / spilling out / on my hands.” This is the perfect programmatic opening (I said this was a beautifully constructed set of poems). Dark Corners is a collection in which the land opens its diseased and damaged heart as a last gasp offering to the poet, and Stripe takes that responsibility on board and gives the land a voice.
Little about the land Stripe describes is unspoilt. This is georgic, the poetry of farming and its ambivalent relation to “nature”. “We stood in the dreek/ farmyard” begins ‘Sweet Meat’, about the castration of a calf. ‘First Milk’ tells a story that is both heartrending and everyday about a still born lamb. The message is clear – those who work the land are drawn to it, rooted in it, dependent on it emotionally and physically, but can do little but skim its surface. In the end they bring as much destruction in their own way (myxomatosis) as the encroaching urbanites who bring “oil, drip-dropped from the motorway planes”
Everyone in Dark Corners is drawn to the darkness, helpless to resist, and like grotesque inversions of Midas they each bring their own destruction that, in reality, does little but hasten nature’s own cannibalisation of itself. This should make for incredibly bleak reading, and indeed it does. But like the glorious supernova of a planet’s sun, or a Peter Greenaway film, there is a hypnotic beauty in this decay. The key poem in understanding this deep ambivalence is ‘In Utero’, which opens with:
“Women ask ‘will you have children?’
What follows is the truth behind the glib response that “my poems are my children.” It is a horrific account of a calf’s stillbirth witnessed by a fourteen year-old.
“We wrenched the bulldog calf
out of the bellowing beast”
the story concludes,
“slopping its glutinous body
into the wheelbarrow
ready to be sold
for dog meat.”
It is an event that clearly encapsulates nature as a whole, and infuses Stripe’s piercing reply to those who ask the initial question:
“I do not tell them the truth, for fear
of spoiling polite conversation
or their own infatuation with maternity.”
Nature is a sun in the last exquisite phase of its dying. Those who understand only the first of these things, its beauty, fail to see the truth about nature – that we are in its end times, that the seemingly ceaseless cycle of the generations is over, that the only rational response is to let the present moment soak into us.
If ‘In Utero’ is key to understanding Stripe’s approach to nature, then central to understanding the collection’s whole world view is ‘Bad Blood’. With its litany of phrases beginning with “who”, the poem sets itself up in the mould of Howl, announcing its own importance. Only instead of “the greatest minds of our generation” we have plastic bags:
“Over the water, plastic bags hang,
mottled old rags in the cold March wind
each plastic bag a broken genealogy
faces from way back burned in the bark”
Humanity, bringer of ugliness and destruction, is something viewed “over the water,” something other, leaving its ugly scent marks on the land in an attempt to claim them with its vandalism, an attempt that is ultimately futile and serves only to damage itself.
“Each branch of my own family tree
is strangled with plastic”
the poem concludes. Humanity and nature are not separated by the water after all. They are one, and the cycle of violence they perpetuate against each other is a death hold of self-harm. This is both Thelma and Louise and Butch and Sundance, facing death with an exquisite romanticism, and Leaving Las Vegas, the last pathetic breaths of a co-dependency that cannot escape the cycle of destruction.
In conclusion, this is a pamphlet that offers wonderful insights, single, beautifully-painted brushstrokes. But it is also woven from many layers into a remarkable, beautiful, heartbreaking, destructive, magnetic tapestry, which serves as a perfect metaphor for the unravelable relationship between humanity and nature.