Lines that cannot disappoint

I’ve been intending to start reviewing collections and pamphlets here for some time. Here’s the first one …

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 17.23.53The title of this review is a quotation from the poem Nightly, two thirds of the way through Zelda Chappel’s haunting and beautiful collection, The Girl in the Dog-tooth Coat, published by Bare Fiction Poetry (2015). Having read and reread the sixty poems in the collection, I can state categorically that I have failed to find a single line that disappoints.

This can be what you want it to be – the inviting title of the first poem – is a welcoming and generous offer to the reader who will do well to reciprocate, by spending time with the poems so that their shifting tides can uncover fresh ground on each visit. An intuitive reader will follow signs – a sodium trail or a glisten of cuckoo spit – in the quest for insights into what the poet might want the collection to be.

The language of the collection is clear and cool yet the poet skillfully controls the rate at which a reader’s understanding builds. In the poem On not holding on to a bird, towards the end of the collection, we are given another offer: Let me talk to you in coded tones until you begin to know what there is to decipher. Elsewhere, the poet refers to Glass making a show of transparency while I learn ways to be opaque. Thus we are encouraged to keep peering through misted lenses, landscapes and mindscapes while clarity gradually emerges, mindful, though, that it is a poet’s prerogative not to make things crystal-clear if they choose not to. This generously leaves an invitation for the reader to bring her/his own experience to the work.

Glass, then, in its many guises, is one of the important metaphors in the collection. So too is salt – the sodium trail. It comes from sea water, is borne on the wind, stings cheeks and eyes, lodges in hair. It pervades relationships. It is a tartness on the lips, at times a bitterness. Stars, whether observed directly or reflected in water, convey both a sense of remoteness and an illusion of ‘graspability’ – much as liberty, that desire of youth – may have to cede to the fear of freedom, as a greater reality. While there is a sense of freedom in the wild marshland, it comes with the risk of getting lost in the mist, of drowning. So too in the quests for identity and for another to share one’s life with – the uncertain, potentially perilous boundaries between self and other. Such dichotomies are mirrored by occasional glimpses into a domestic interior or a more urban environment, but the ever-present backdrop is the ever-changing coastal landscape where the blurred edges of land, sky and sea merge into Turneresque abstraction.

The weather, the changing seasons, varieties of birds, parts of the body – all play key roles in the imagery of this collection, as do elements associated with the crafting of textiles: fabric, thread, the acts of sewing and unpicking. These motifs carry the themes which gradually emerge – as the craft wills: the search for self and other, freedom and commitment, reticence and open communication. There are attempts to focus in uncertainty, to define boundaries, to make the fuzzy clear – and conversely there is an imperative to retain opacity as a form of self-protection, privacy, and perhaps to preserve a degree of mystery. These contrasting impulses blend and merge in the intertidal zones, the shifting sand, the deceptive saltmarsh, the unfocused filtering of earth, sea and sky. Romney Marsh and Dungeness are a fitting backdrop for the uncertain interplay of relationships and psychologies in the collection.

Precision of focus comes as the lens is adjusted; marshland firms up into the more solid territory of measurement, mechanical things, numbers even. However, we are not encouraged to grasp after these for easy ‘answers’. For me, the loosening and tightening focus are no more clearly contrasted than in the poems Winter and Dead cert, on facing pages, towards the end of the collection. Winter encapsulates many of the elements encountered in the poems – the coalescing of landscape, climate, season and the human’s place in them; familiar elements of sea, tide, salt, sand, grit, light, dark, sun, moon, horizon, shadow, fog, cold – the merging and the blurring of these – contrasting with the hard-edged pavement, strident bird calls, the sting of commuter hours.   On the opposite page, is a poem of precision and certainty – but it is a dead certainty – the dysfunction of a broken clock, cracking skin. The ‘you’ of this poem is calculating, acquisitive, destructive: But there’s an air of certainty about it; the way you split hairs and bone, make small piles of me to store and count up later. The ‘I’ of the poem consequently becomes almost Plathian in her pain: Even with my eyes closed I can watch the way you peel back my skin like an offering line your pockets with my ash. The juxtaposition of Winter and Dead Cert thus presents us with insights into an asymmetric pairing in terms of emotional quotient. The form of the poems is similarly contrasting – five spare couplets for Winter, two seven-line blocks, defying the label of sonnet or prose poem, for Dead cert – a poem which therefore ironically persists in its ‘uncertainty’.

In terms of shape, colour and texture, the poet is a consummate artist. An initial reading might give a largely monochrome impression, with diffusing shades of light and dark gradually solidifying until we achieve clarity – significantly, in the black and white pattern of the girl’s dog-tooth check coat. But there are intense splashes of colour throughout the collection, startling us out of the dreamlike atmosphere of the often-misted landscape. In Red Sky we are given a shepherds’ warning in crimson and rose of how dangerous the marsh is. A sense of fear is instilled early in a child’s muffled ears by an anxious mother – as memorable and as potentially damaging as earache. A child hears and heeds the warnings but must strive to go beyond them if they are to resist a restricted existence: the vastness of longing for water to take what the wind gave us, all those fears we hold of drowning. We want to hear their warnings. We’ve no choice but to slip our skins.   Daring – the desire for freedom and escape – challenge caution and restraint. The image of ‘slipping’ in relation to ‘skin’ returns repeatedly as an important motif in several poems centering on relationships, as we shall see later.

In Lucky, colour floods in. Blue of sky and sea merges with greens of land, washed on a broad canvas, until our eyes are sharply pulled to the foreground in a flash of primrose. With the perception of a child, both poet and reader sense details close to the ground, through eyes, feet and backs of legs. Here we are near enough to the pavement to see the glisten of cuckoo spit, reminding us of the trail of sodium on the paving in first poem. Such are the signs left for a reader to read. In Lucky the sun breaks through again, but it is sunset on a large canvas and clarity and definition fade: I loved the sunset because the blurring didn’t matter.

Thwarted communication and difficulty in expressing emotion are similarly subtly expressed through metaphor. Our tongues get folded, stealing away my speech delicately merges reticence with the act of kissing. Equally exquisite is the description of whispering: open mouths writing letters, lipped words placed softly in ears precisely. In the transitional poem Pause, the theme of stalled communication is beautifully carried by a singing metaphor: You’ve no idea how I could sing a thousand words and still not be able to speak them. I tell you there’s something you don’t understand between the punctuation. After the birth of a child, there seems to be an easing of communication – for a while. But in the poem Lucky, which combines many of the themes of the collection, communication sticks, and a sense of separateness and alienation appears to return: You could have talked the world into stopping. It did for a while. I felt it …”

The importance of edges and margins, as painted in the backdrop to the collection, is mirrored in the desire for boundaries to be maintained, or crossed, between one person and another. This is clearly related to how far an individual’s identity extends – the border where one person ends and another begins. Personal space is repeatedly tested in the collection, with images of ‘slipping’ and ‘sliding’ between clothing and flesh. The poet writes of a fetish for transcendence being ‘easier’ – easier, perhaps, than defining the extent of an individual’s identity: These days it’s slipping through flesh which we know can be done in silence. In Flesh the poet writes of shrinking as you fill the space I leave between my skin and bone. In Trickster: No one but me sees the way your hand slips under. In the transitional poem Pause there is an exquisitely intimate development in the theme: Now your hand between my under-skins gets left there. It helps you know which bits you’ve touched, which ones are still to go.

There are so many ‘favourite poems’ in this collection, and so rich is the imagery built up layer on layer, that I could write at length on each poem in relation to the rest. But I need to draw this review to a close. I therefore choose three: the achingly beautiful Deciphering the sea for my baby, Dear boy and Post-natal as my current favourites but these could change at my next reading. There are so many excellent poems in the collection that it isn’t possible to limit favourites to two or three.

The final poem, Numbers, brings precision and apparent clarity – the ‘mechanical’ threads – together, yet resolution remains elusive. The last three lines almost mischievously remind the reader to resist reaching for obvious conclusions, even after repeated rereadings.   The glass retains opacity, the landscape remains blurred, boundaries are still uncertain:

 I gave them all my numbers / knowing they mean nothing. They mistook them / for answers. I knew they would

… splendid lines with which to conclude a collection of poems that cannot disappoint.

Zelda Chappel’s collection The Girl in the Dog-tooth Coat is available from Bare Fiction Poetry

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