– Reviewed by Penny Boxall –
These two attractive pamphlets, published by Smith Doorstop, are the fruits of Maura Dooley’s 2014 residency at Jane Austen’s house in Chawton. The first, A Quire of Paper, is Dooley’s sole work; she edits All My Important Nothings, an anthology of invited writers’ poems about the Austen literary legacy.
Literary houses are always a little problematic. Whether a castle or a hermitage, they invite the devotee into the space in which great ideas were cherished, nourished, wielded. Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s former-pub nook in Grasmere, suggests, with its flagstones and meagre fires, a hard domesticity; we know Dorothy read Chaucer to her brother as he lounged on the hearthside rug, but we know too of the daily trips to fetch water, eight-mile round-trips for the post, the out-of-work soldiers. The Brontë Parsonage, with its small, polite rooms, hardly seems a likely point of genesis for Heathcliff and Mrs Rochester; nor does Coleridge’s neat little Devon cottage seem plausible as a backdrop for Kubla Khan. Nonetheless, our appetite for these places is, it seems, indefatigable; as though, by learning a writer’s daily routine, their favourite pet or dress, we might understand them better.
Maura Dooley has, by and large, avoided easy sentiment in her own poems about the place. These are quiet, domestic poems which do not want to cause too much fuss; in that respect she has captured something singularly Austenesque. On first acquaintance, I found the opening poem, ‘A Visit’, a little too light; but on further reading it catches better. If it doesn’t roar, it definitely sparks. The first few poems are overshadowed by the more convincing and compelling pieces later in the collection; the prosaic ‘Why Do We Come?’ (‘[b]ecause she says what we think, quietly, / she says what we think, wittily, / with more wit, / before we knew we thought it’) is, a couple of page-turns later, outstripped by the gorgeous ‘Under the Eaves’ and ‘Capt Frank Austen Visits Port Mahon’. In particular, the closing lines of ‘Under the Eaves’ resonate down through the foundations:
spill moonlight into an unloved space.
Dreams will have raided this quiet place.
‘Capt Frank…’ has real bounce and a sense of fun (crucial to the Jane Austen theme): the interlocutor is
hugger-mugger at Fiesta, where a sweat of gin and sun,
the clatter and heft of steaming horses
[…] summons the skin-sore sailor’s salve
of almond oil.
Another nearby poem, ‘Have you Remembered to Collect Pieces for the Patchwork?’, marries the art of storytelling with the act of sewing: the ‘lightning needle’, flashing at its work, ‘draws it all together’. I find myself wishing that Dooley would take more risks of this kind: when she really ‘draws it together’, these are fine and evocative poems with a great sense of place.
All My Important Nothings, on the other hand, draws the themes of familiarity, home and work outwards. The selection of contributing poets is canny, and they all speak volumes about themselves. Jonathan Davidson’s opening poem, ‘Dear Elizabeth Bennet’, is rightly in a prime spot, imagining an Elizabeth who, though advanced in age, has still ‘got it’. Her allure, like her, is timeless. This is followed by an eccentric but entirely convincing piece by Abigail Parry, ‘Emma, you’re a gamer’, which tickles with its inventive, madcap internal rhyme:
Emma. You’re a dreamer. You’re a strategist. A schemer –
the metagame of manners,
all those formal misdemeanours,
the compliments, charades.
Rooted in the contemporary though this piece is, I can’t help but feel that Austen would have recognised its sentiment, and raised an impressed eyebrow at its linguistic cojones.
Zaffar Kunial’s excellent ‘Jane Austen: Selected Letters’ also deserves a particular nod: Kunial collides two ‘JA’s (Austen and his mother, Julia Ann) into a moving and deep-delving poem about writing the self. Unable to write the double fs of his name, or to pronounce the Z, the poet is
taken aback by letters – their afterlife –
and how we draw together when they arrive.
Like the best pieces in this anthology, this is a poem which needed to be written.
Just as Kunial was poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust, Katrina Naomi is no stranger to the houses of writers – she was resident at the Brontë Parsonage. Like Kunial, she turns her poem (‘Costume Drama’) back on the reader so that it breathes its own breath. The same is true of Lavinia Greenlaw’s excellent ‘Towards a Diagnosis’, which, strangely, interposes Austen into a medical conundrum, and gets it right.
The list of writers’ names is impressive (Jackie Kay, Ian Duhig, Imtiaz Dharker and Daljit Nagra are included, with other well-established writers, alongside newer names), and the treatment of subject enlightening. All My Important Nothings contains many important little truths.