Museum Pieces by Wendy Pratt
-Reviewed by Claire Trévien-
The opening poem to Museum Pieces, and its namesake, tells us that ‘These things are not the quiet keepers / of another time, they are not static’. An appropriate summary for a collection that veers between an exploration of times long buried with a real zest for life. Wendy Pratt is just at home writing about the euphoria of ‘Irish Dancing on New Year’s Eve’ (‘we were pissed, both staggering’) as she is about loss (‘grief was a cold hard slab’), and through it all the thread of a fossilised history makes itself felt (‘we can’t help but search the bones / of the house for fingerprints’).
The first section titled ‘The Portrait Gallery’ initially gives us the impression that it is to be peopled with charismatic portraits of personalities caught in the moment. While this is the case in the first two poems, where Pratt re-imagines Jesus ‘testing the suddenly rubbered tension’ of water, or a still alive but ‘tongue-tied’ first Mrs Rochester, the rug is rapidly whipped from under our feet. In ‘Cheekbones’, the poet observes her mother hanging ‘her face from [her] grandfather’s cheekbones, / and all her sharp faced kin-folk are the same’. This variation on the villanelle begins quirkily enough but the relentless repetition of blankness makes it rapidly acquire a sinister tone:
And all those future births, those children branded with their bones,
pinned into time, like butterflies, their sins gone unatoned.
My face can give no answers, just the bones that I’m bequest.
‘Cheekbones’ sets us up for the rest of the collection, where Pratt draws together a delicious cocktail of morbidity, mixing the quick with the fossilised to emphasize a feeling of instability:
His robes: too big and all those bones
waiting to be out grown, a map,
a future not yet cut through,
satined beneath the fossiled stone.
(‘Philippus Minor 237-249 AD’)
At 82 pages, Pratt’s collection is slightly longer than your average, with each of the 7 sections feeling like its own standalone pamphlet. How to compare ‘The Portrait Gallery’ to ‘The Unused Room’ section for instance, which focuses on the loss of a child:
Only six weeks gone and already
I’m letting you channel her ghost through the pores
of my bones; allowing the tight-fit of plates
and fastenings to drift apart like forgotten continents.
(‘Half Dreaming When the Storm Breaks’)
The bones haunt again, whether newly dug out, or recently separated, Pratt reminds us of history as a constant negotiation between the personal and official, the wilfully remembered and the difficult to forget.
The centrepiece of the collection is a section titled ‘Star Carr’ based around a Mesolithic site in North Yorkshire, in which Pratt combines a study of its features as it stands with its ancient purposes:
Twelve thousand years gone and the ground
still drinking its glacial ghost. Peat trench, thin
like a skin over the gravel and sand
where the lake people lay horse bones to rest.
Looking west to Star Carr, it seemed a nothing place,
a field, off against a tree line. But I felt a presence,
I felt possessed by the people and their
deaths. In the quiet scraping of many trowels,
the archaeologist’s constant, I felt
I had undressed them, skinned their lives
(‘V. Trench Seven’)
Her voice in this section is meticulous, but without ever falling into cold erudition. The bones are ‘flinching’, and she herself is always self-consciously present, narrating how the discoveries will be ‘re-told’ for others, until we too feel caught up in a narrative of a narrative.
There are many other treasures to uncover within Museum Pieces, including a section loaned from her pamphlet Nan Hardwicke Turns Into a Hare and a slightly bewildering one called ‘The Surrealist’s Wardrobe’, which you should discover yourself spoiler-free.
There has been a trend lately for collections playing on the idea of archives, whether it’s Penny Boxall’s Ship of the Line, or Richard Moorhead’s The Word Museum, or Sue Rose’s Heart Archives. You would think we’re about to reach peak-museum, yet Pratt’s gorgeous control over form, and unexpected images manage to make the genre, like the best kind of exhibition, still feel alive and relevant.