Book Reviews

Review of A Prism for the Sun by Rose Flint

Published by Oversteps Books, Devon 2015

by Fiona Hamilton

Rose Flint's fifth collection A Prism for the Sun opens our senses to birds, animals, elements, flora, while attentively contemplating human involvement with other-than-human worlds. She draws us close, almost inside, each moment, offering shifting perspectives on these interconnections, giving spaces for us to consider their prismatic forms.

In 'Marking china-blue' the physical sensation of cold sea on hands begins the poem. The lines achieve a fluidity as the poet attempts to ‘pull’ waves forward and they separate braid-like around her fingers. This interconnects with thoughts of the writer or artist’s efforts to mark or record a colour - aquamarine - or a state. By staying with the motions of the waves, body and water become almost indistinguishable:

how tides fall through my body so I am rain

laced in the breakers, rolled so small, over and over

In  surrendering to the element the poet - and the reader - experience a sense of deeper renewal:

                                    This

 is how I am returned to love.

Throughout the collection the reader is invited to share in experiences of love, rapture, grief, discomfort, uncertainty, joy. Flint shows the reader a cornucopia of textures, colours, scents. Darker, more precarious threads are present too. The fragility of ecosystems is evident in dwindling flocks of goldfinch and lapwing who lack protection in monochrome human-defined landscapes. A visit to ‘The Frozen Ark’ shows endangered species ‘curled into a single speckle/ of their DNA', each animal’s DNA preserved in a vial, rendered no bigger than the freckles on the poet's skin. The complexities of the ‘human hand’ in this tragedy are evident: this is also the hand that has carefully assembled the frozen archive, with a view to a future. The poet’s hand, meanwhile, offers tentative redemption by conjuring post-human worlds where the magnificent cats might step out of the mist once again.

Bereavement, actual and potential, is held and contemplated within a bigger landscape that offers solace and renewal of varying kinds. While there is an elegiac note in some of the poems, the human and natural worlds are never placed in simple bilateral opposition. Humans are kind as well as destructive – one is lovingly viewed ‘attending to small hungers’ by feeding birds in a bitter March wind, an act of resilience and hope, sacred in its way:

you are binding the bright song-book through

this sharp March garden of sombre hedges

and shut wildflowers, into summer dawns

Graceful as birds themselves, the words lift off into the future tense and wheel back into present and continuous tenses, making a song of joy in which human gesture, birdsong, sun, and the act of writing intermingle and crescendo together into another renewal of love.

Combining thoughtfulness with a keen artist’s eye, the poet brings fresh understandings of how violence and destruction also play their part, and of possible responses. In the opening poem, a sparrowhawk is a ‘vivid barbarian’ – so why is he so alluring and desirable?

He is structure to hold the song. He is shadow and scythe

Setting each moment of wild light flying in glory.

Later in the collection, there is a visceral encounter with hornets, provoking revulsion, fear and discomfort as survival instincts kick in. In ‘The tenderness of men’ a list of human cruelties feels relentless until it softens into a freer form in which these human miseries and deficits become part of a wider, more generous universe perceived by the writer.

Flint’s extensive experience as a writer in healthcare settings and for the Kingfisher Project in Salisbury District Hospital has brought her into close contact with the many astonishments and sorrows of such environments. In a sequence in the last section of the book, everyday transformations are illuminated and the possibilities for healing explored. The miraculous is never shouted about but tenderly noted. In these hospital interiors full of man-made instruments, the natural world is strongly and vividly present as well. Human hands are depicted as expert and compassionate: a carefully-wrought sonnet succinctly depicts the precision of a surgeon at work. ‘Elements of Healing’ pares back modern medical tools and potions to their elemental processes, restoring a beauty and sense of connection with nature’s healing properties in lines that obtain a soothing, benedictory tone.

In A Prism for the Sun Flint makes visible what is often obscured in the hurly burly of busy, speedy, technological life. I wanted to describe the collection as ‘mouth-watering’ although the description didn’t quite seem to fit. Then I re-read ‘When there is a word for joy’, the last poem in the book, where medical terms, words for delicious foods, and exotic words are juxtaposed, forming a small lexicon in which we taste joy, and in tasting it are convinced it is available not only to others, but here, now, in these words, for ourselves. This is a heart-lifting, joyous collection, a healing read, one that left me with a feeling of deep gratitude.

 

Bite Sized by Fiona Hamilton.

Published by Vala Publishers September 2014. A story of a mother striving to nourish her child, of the impact of an eating disorder, the modern-day monster of ‘too much’ and ‘not enough’, and threads that connect, entangle, unravel and stretch, between parents and children. Above all, a story of taking on monsters and trusting in the importance of love. Launch event on 21st September in Bristol and reading in London on 25th September: http://www.valapublishers.coop/bitesized 

Review – Crown of Thorns by Bethany W Pope (Oneiros Books 2013, price £5)

Bethany Pope’s latest collection Crown of Thorns describes itself on the title page as a ‘Marriage of Forms’. Indeed it is the formal structure the poet employs in this book, with such elegance and apparent ease, which must be first and foremost admired. A marriage is a union and Pope’s collection, a complex weaving of narrative is conceived as a single poem which tells the story of family – Pope’s own family and her place in it. And quite a story it is too. The story is told unflinchingly through a series of sonnet crowns that are variously and ingeniously linked, by theme, by storyline, even by bloodline. The final section of the book ‘Bloodlines’, consisting of 45 sonnets subdivided into three sections is a further variation on the sonnet crown form described by Pope as an Emperors Crown. The result is an epic, almost biblical depiction of ancestral ties and the family tree to which the poet belongs. In the first of these 45 sonnets Pope writes The/History of family sets the future in its tread. This is the adage on which the entire book rests. 

One gets the sense that for Pope, the job of the poet is to uncover what otherwise might be buried, to bare the unbearable. The poetry here pulls no punches – each sonnet unmasks something new, shocking, sad, pathologically revealing about the family history – and yet every line appears to have been carefully crafted with a deep sense of purposefulness and love. Pope is that rare thing, a genuine full-time poet. In a recent interview she says ‘I work on my poetry for eight hours a day… Because poetry is my vocation I treat it like a full-time job.’ But this job for her is not simply one of dishing the dirt or revealing uncomfortable family secrets in a sensational or garish way. Pope shows us clearly and impressively with this book, her second collection to date, that real art depends on form as much as it does content. It is her use of the sonnet corona, elevated to heroic and imperial heights and, finely enriched with acrostics, all so tightly constructed, that ultimately makes this collection such a moving and engaging piece of work. Pope is in full command of her poetic powers here and writes with a maturity and dexterity that belies her young age.

Crown of Thorns divides into four parts, focusing on four generations of family. The first, the title sequence, charts the origins of the parents, alternating between the two, Joy: Thorns, Unplanned second daughter, blond, gap-toothed, squalling and John: Blood, Your grandfather delivered you, slick from your mother. In the second part the poet addresses her brother, who was her mother’s favourite …her only son. It was natural and asserts Filial love is never easy; it comes with a cost. The poems forming the third part, ‘Rabbit Trap’, bristle with a visceral filmic energy and are perhaps, for this reviewer, the highlight of the collection. The narrative voice through this section is firmly rooted in the autobiographical ‘I’ and delivered with urgency, vulnerability and determination. This section begins with the scene of a road-kill Rabbit blood on my hands and concludes Dear child, be content with your breathing, draw an/invisible sheath around your exposed nerves./No merciful, slaughtering hand will descend to save you./Gather your strength; your turn with the knife will finally come. 

Ultimately Pope mines the past the way an archaeologist might, uncovering clues, piecing together the parts that might tell us the whole. She invites the reader to dig too, into content as well as form, to discover messages that could be hidden. In the last epic 45 sonnet long section, ‘Bloodlines’, there is delicious satisfaction in finally deciphering the acrostic puzzle Pope has playfully laid out for us and learning, amongst other things, that Bethany was born laughing.

Cheryl Moskowitz, January 2014

 

 

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