– Reviewed by Penny Boxall –
When reading Ruth Padel’s Darwin (2009) I found myself wondering if Darwin wasn’t perhaps too huge a figure, too familiar from his bush-bearded photographs and, latterly, from the backs of coins. Padel drew together threads of biography through letters and imaginings, and delivered a poetically engaging, if not altogether personally convincing, slant on the great scientist’s life. In An Ember from the Fire, Jane Bonnyman – Edinburgh poet and R. L. Stevenson fan – has eschewed the novelist-adventurer himself in favour of a slant portrait of the much lesser-known figure of his wife. It is a canny move; we are not familiar with her, but she touches on familiarity. More obscure subjects allow the poet more creative freedom.
‘Dawn’, the opening poem, is a subtly gorgeous invitation into a world where ‘the vast water / [is] spread before her / like an unwritten page’. Bonnyman is going to write on that page, making Fanny van de Grift Stevenson a revenant. This is no dusty, leprous resurrection; Bonnyman is a painter, an adroit dauber of colour, so that in ‘Vanity Fair’ we are treated to:
women in showy bustles
and saucy hats parading past,
their green eyes caught for a moment
by the flash of a brass button
on a Captain’s bright blue coat.
Looking on the past with the freshness of the modern eye is a much-admired skill. They don’t quite all make the mark, however: the ending of ‘Le Soir, Hotel Chevillon’, for example, falls a little flat after the considered opening. A poem which contains the sumptuous lines ‘She notes the whispering outline / of the castle ruin hidden / behind oak trees of Fontainebleau / that stand like centaurs in the fading light’ ending on the flatter tone of ‘She listens to his wild stories, / and considers new compositions’ just brings the mood down a notch.
Happily, the next poem brings the quality back up. ‘Monterey, 1879’ features a procession who
carry eggshells filled with gold
and, nearing the Bay, they raise them
to the moonless sky, as if
you could capture happiness
then dance under its shimmering rain.
This is wonderful, and takes a greater risk than the previous poems.
In the middle of the collection, these poems really hit their stride, easing into a world of death and heat, uncertainty and hope. Parrots and moths circle in the fierce air, at odds with Fanny’s reserve. ‘An idiot bird’ is the most appealing poem in the collection; here we have a marriage of colour and weight, so that the last lines – ‘watching him dance over orchids, / a tiny sail ship on the blue air’ – are not only visually sumptuous but also, like a tamed bird, settle in the memory.
These poems have great need of the notes at the rear of the collection; the narrative of Fanny Stevenson’s life is a hugely adventurous one. This beautifully-researched, well-executed volume is a treat, and ends, poignantly, with R L Stevenson’s own dedication to this most remarkable of intrepid women.