Rapture by Roisin Kelly
-Reviewed by Humphrey Astley-
There’s no getting around it: ‘rapture’ is a loaded word, drawing a direct line back to poetic language’s origins in scripture. It’s a risky move, and potentially a turn-off for the modern reader – isn’t there already a Carol Ann Duffy collection with that name, after all? There is, and – like Kelly’s Rapture – it’s fixated on romantic love. What Kelly does though, is to imbue this fixation with exactly the kind of religious connotations one might be tempted to ignore. The title is no accident.
At the same time, however, the word ‘God’ appears precisely zero times in this pamphlet. No, Kelly is far more interested in gods-plural, the deities and demi-deities that fill the solicitous heavens:
Let me float to Orion,
let my fingers find his belt’s cold buckle.
Oh Mars, my love with red hair
is gone from me and in your single,
maddened eye, I have glimpsed
the men I’ll sacrifice to find him.
Again, this trope is no accident: Rapture concerns itself with a single thwarted romance in which the speaker’s lover leaves the country. Floored by this, she looks to the one thing she shares with him no matter what separates them: the sky. It’s cold comfort, however, being the thing into which he has vanished, and thus a place of both projection and dejection:
I watch your plane
ascend at dusk and play the scene
backwards on a loop, so that you do not fly
but fall, returning and returning to me.
But I will let you go, for only then can the seed
you leave burrow as a cold star towards
It’s a fecund metaphor that spreads across the entire pamphlet, as fecund as ‘the apples that hang like planets’. But wait – ‘fall’? ‘apple’? is Kelly evoking the Bible after all? Yes and no. She’s comfortable making reference to Christianity but prefers dealing with it indirectly:
If grief had a sound, if it had a feeling
it would be this hunger no bread can satisfy.
The act is a prayer with which
I might remind you of our country’s soft
secret moss between boulders,
of its constellations first named by pagans.
By dint of authorial or editorial discretion, perhaps, Rapture’s most subversive religious material appears at the end, when the speaker describes how she’d ‘make a blue star / for the virgin, my small hands nervous / as they touched a wick / to someone else’s flame.’ She goes on:
Since then my hands have set other
things on fire, and she does not judge.
She knows what we have done
in the dark, tumbling
over sofa and rug.
I will lay you down before her
at her wettest, wildest grotto
where only she and I
will hear your cries.
Poets have discussed desire in far more sophisticated terms over the centuries, of course, but there’s something so unabashed, so unaffected about Kelly’s approach that it’s refreshing. And there’s something glorious about the bloody-minded, omnia vincit amor way in which Mary is transfigured into almighty Eros, who ‘[whispers] in your ear // that for your love she’ll cross / the whole aching universe – crush planets / in her fists to dust’. The girl means business.
Again, it’s hardly subtle, though that’s not to say the pamphlet lacks subtlety altogether. The title-piece, for example, is an elegant opener, its perfectly-pitched tone and downplayed drama establishing an ambiguous morality:
Here, where the woods begin to take over,
raspberries grow all summer. I used to fill bowls
and bowls of them, more than I could ever eat
and the birds went hungry.
The speaker may be fallible, but she’s also self-aware. And, while it’s an obvious reference, the stark, time-shift turn at the poem’s halfway point suggests that Kelly knows her Yeats (specifically ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’):
One night I dreamed I entered the woods,
emerged in a meadow where a herd of deer
grazed in the red rising sun.
Now each dewdrop holds the winter world.
Clearly, she’s concerned with themes of innocence versus experience, though they seem to coexist in her poetry, in a world where erotic frustration is imbued with prepubescent visions ‘the colour of my childhood bedroom’. In this sense, Kelly can be associated with an emerging school of metamodernism, or ‘naive capability’, if you like. Such art exists between tradition and modernity, in the midst of a coming-of-age, ‘between the old, known world / and some fiery entrance to elsewhere.’
This entrance to elsewhere haunts a poem like ‘Rose’, which takes another quintessentially Yeatsian image and puts it through the mill of a confused and messy scene. Here, young love struggles drunkenly to contain its own meaning, a meaning that seems to spill over into the physical world:
I put the rose in my hair. Roses are best
for a birthday, it was your birthday that night
and the house itself seemed to know it.
A faint shifting of floorboards, a dimming
of the overhead light. A bedroom door in the hall
bloomed with a fresh coat of paint
but it stayed closed.
Later, the aforementioned pagan gods (Dionysus among them, it would seem) crash the party, with the speaker describing breathlessly how ‘The rose fell out / of my hair. A girl tore at it with her teeth // and then I bit the rose, then there were crushed / petals everywhere. She stuffed them / down my top, then the gin bottle was empty.’ We’ve all had nights like these, but in Kelly’s poem, and in the context of the pamphlet as a whole, objectively trivial events take on symbolic significance: this is what poetry’s for.
Indeed, symbolism is key. Kelly’s poems are neither flashy nor particularly inventive, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’s willing (whether she knows it or not) to flirt with the stereotypical if it means glimpsing the archetypical, the deep well that feeds all authentic art. Some readers won’t be convinced by what might come across as cliched love poems (I tried persuading my girlfriend of Rapture‘s merits and she was having none of it) and, admittedly, several pieces read like sketches rather than mature works. But perseverance is rewarded by the sense that we are in the company of an artist who just might have a vision:
I’ve seen things I’ve never dreamed of:
cats with blue-green opals instead of eyes,
streets that taste of grey candy.
I dream of ghost children with the features
of whichever man is with me,
flickering on the rain-swept prom.