A review of Stella Wulf’s After Eden (4Word Press, 2018)
In the words “Fine lines between truth and distortion” from Stella Wulf’s poem Drawing from Life we find keys to the book as a whole. All thirty poems are indeed fine, superbly crafted by a poet with a keen ear for the musicality and playfulness of words, and with the added advantage of an artist’s eye. In her work, Stella Wulf explores the contrasts and paradoxes of life. She excels in the art of ambiguity, many phrases working overtime, and with multiple meanings, wordplay, and homophones employed to invite the reader to consider more than one version of ‘truth’. We are welcomed to experience life in Wales and France, also travelling figuratively, to the moon and back, to meet a range of characters – highly credible or playfully imagined – in various relationships. These figures act out the major themes in the book, encompassing attraction and seduction, commitment and domesticity, reproduction, nurturing and motherhood, genuine love and affection … and potential exploitation. The moon, its association with the feminine, and its pull on the earth, is a significant presence in the book, as are various male figures including suitor, lover, husband, artist, miner, gardener and minister of religion. Creatures in the world of nature are also presented, memorably swifts, fox, crow, peacock and heron. My favourite poems in this fine array are Sweet Dreams, Painting with Swifts, A Light Proposal, In the Light of Yesterday, Drawing from Life, Boreas, Vixen and the poems set in France, featuring Monsieur and Madame Dubois … but all the poems in the book are fine poems, with countless fine lines. There are no makeweights.
In Sweet Dreams a young woman, impatient with the familiarity of home, is eager to take off on an adventure. Right from the first line, we experience Stella Wulf’s gift for delighting the ear with assonance and alliteration. Sonic interest propels the reader through the poem as the young heroine jettisons the pedestrian and predictable, with their “jam-on-Sunday-stale-bread-pace”. She can’t wait to leave the “land-locked-and-keyed lubbers”. These ingenious wordstrings create multiple layers of imagery and meaning. The reader smiles at the wordplay (“in cahoots … with owls”) and admires the beauty of “plunders bliss from the nightjar’s chirr”.
In Painting with Swifts, the poet-artist captures birds and movement in both words and pigment: “a cobalt stroke … a slake of grey … a lick of buttercup yellow”. The poem is an audio-visual treat, with repeated hard consonants and long vowels contrasting with short vowels and soft ‘sw’ alliteration. The fourth stanza, summer, brings more long ā sounds (“hay-days … away”), with a play on heydays understood. The last stanza softens and blurs: “a feather-edge of owl smudges” … ”the essence of mouse”. There are countless examples, such as these, of fine word-painting by Stella Wulf throughout After Eden.
Drawing from Life changes medium and mood. The poet’s mastery of ambiguity, conveyed by words doing double duty, is again obvious here. Sex is in the air, but the charged language (“scribes”, “neat incision”) hints at exploitation and the potential for violence. There is a detached and calculating coldness in the draughtsman’s rendering of the “arc of her face” as his strokes “contour hollows, accentuate planes; for now he has her measure”. He dominates his subject (“like an emperor”) and there is more than a chill in the way the artist “thumbs her body / divides her’. This is just one example of the many masterly line breaks in After Eden, here inviting imaginations to do their worst. The male’s actions leave her in pieces (“abstract parts”) and the strong hints of abuse break out again with “the scythe of light that slices her back / carves … flesh” and the “plunge of shadow that etches her spine” which “draws a sickle moon beneath her buttock’s rise”. This is one of many occasions in this book that the moon, emblematic of woman, makes an appearance.
In Fabric the poet’s exploitation of texture reminds us that interior design is another of Stella Wulf’s accomplishments. The poem charts a progression from early attraction, consummation, drudgery, infidelity, withdrawal, trying again, starting over … ingeniously achieved through the weave and warp of extended ‘material’ metaphors, brilliantly layered … one on top of another. The wordplay here is masterly, as the fabric of life moves from static-laden nylon, to seductive satin to serviceable cotton and linen (“worn cast-off … tied to the iron … hard-pressed”). Meanwhile, infidelity is signalled as the “nylon lover … flirts with Georgette”. Small wonder that the moon invites the main character to “make a run for the sea of tranquillity” with the hope to “sparkle again” in a “clean sheet”. In Boreas sex makes its presence felt again, big-time. Here there is no courtship, no nonsense, no foreplay. This man is a “wham-bammer, a tequila slammer / whisking up skirts before the chat-up line”. With an echo back to Fabric we learn, unsurprisingly, that “the delicates” are suffering, and there is a “tangled mess” to be ironed out. However, this poem has a delightfully unexpected ending, unambiguously complicit!
Whether in Wales or France, the sense of place is convincingly portrayed via gradations of dark and light, monochrome and colour, cold and warmth, hard graft and rich pickings. In Mudlark, a young beachcomber (surely on a Welsh beach) finds broken pieces of pottery – small prizes, especially a piece of Ming china, evidence of foreign travel. (How brave and self-mocking of the poet to use ‘shard’ in a poem!) Another find, the sheep’s jawbone, conjures up the shadow of R S Thomas and there is a hint of cynghanedd about “lip of plate, a clay pipe”, In the light of yesterday opens up the gloomy caverns of Welsh mines, personified: “The black face of the pit / the swallow and spit of its shovelling mouth”. After a heart-wrenching reference to Aberfan “extinguished / beneath a spew of slack”, we migrate to the north Welsh mining areas where “houses hunker under a pitiless drab / like consonants pitched against hard-pushed cenllysg, glaw, mining the light to its core”. The spirit of RST broods again over the last two lines: “and always the spectre of harrowed men / hacking, and picking at the bowels” which surely reminds us of the last lines of Thomas’s A Welsh Landscape. Another poem set in Wales, Mr Morgan’s Fall, features that familiar figure – the minister of religion who loses the confidence of his flock. Morgan is associated with trees, birds, river, land, hills, brook, rook and ewe and – significantly – a “heathen’s tractor humming along”, this latter reminding us of R S Thomas’s Iago Prytherch and his tractor.
In France, we move on from the chaos of Boreas’ washing line and the hint of a whirlwind dalliance. Now an “upstart breeze” playfully puffs over Monsieur Dubois’ potager and “licks, ruffles, chicanes … to blow at raspberries”. We are painted an intoxicating picture of Gascony: its gardens, its crops, how heat defeats the breeze, how hay is baled, how cows whisk flies from their eyes, and graze beneath oaks, accompanied by croaking frogs. This fourth stanza is particularly fine sonically and presents a heady contrast with the monochrome hardship and cold of Wales in the previous poems. Here, Monsieur Dubois, sweating in his work clothes, “pulls radish, plucks string beans, turns beetroot” … examples of Stella Wulf’s enjoyable wordplay accompany us throughout this poem. The wife of Monsieur Dubois offers us superior preserves to the mundane British bread and jam we encountered in Sweet Dreams. Her husband rises early to pick “for his wife, a petit déjeuner / plump figs ripened by a fine promise”. In three playful lines of end-rhyme, we learn that “Madame Dubois … likes to pluck from her husband’s tree” and with this image still suggestively hanging in the air, we learn “She craves the flesh of his Mirabelles, devours his juicy Bergerons, until she’s overcome with the yield”. This poem is warm, sumptuously saucy, deliciously brimming with good things.
In A Light Proposal there are further generous helpings of the alliteration and assonance we’ve come to expect from Stella Wulf: “I’ve seen you leap on a knife-edge keen as a laser, / slide down the, blade of a cleaver. // I’ve watched you play in ladles, loom in scoops / of spoons. Now you beam at my moon face / in the kettle, give me back to myself in parody”. Stella’s vocabulary and imagery depict light as a beguiling lover. The rhyming couplet at the end of the poem is utterly captivating: “you dazzle me with wit, light me up / then balance a diamond on the rim of my cup”.
Vixen is a poem pregnant with death and sorrow but inspiring in its fortitude, determination and conviction that life goes on. The opening stanza is arresting in rhyme, metaphor and atmosphere: “She lies low, watches the last crow /fletch the bloodshot sky /straight as a quarrel home to roost”. The sonic interest of the poem is again a delight: “A tatter of bats whisk like rags mopping up dusk. / Night pitches in, its skin nicked by a sickle moon. / Stars break out in a bristling rash”. Clearly the dog fox has been killed and his mate must provide for herself and the cubs she is carrying. Poignantly “She hugs the shadow of his scent, rootles / the empty space of him /stalks his wake, / tomorrow lurching inside her. // Tonight she’ll shake new life out of the dead”. The end of the poem echoes its opening – with feathers. Vixen is my personal favourite in the book; it is loaded with sombre colour, arresting sounds, astonishing imagery, compellingly portraying death and new life, male and female, the natural world and the world of man.
The two myth poems, Mermaid and Grandma are full of purposeful ambiguity. In the first, a male/female, pursuit/pursued poem is again played out. It ends badly, the woman returning to her mother, freed from a toxic relationship, but like Penelope or the French Lieutenant’s Woman, still gazing at the horizon, waiting “for the billow of sail, the cut and well of prow”. In Grandma, a twist on the Red Riding Hood story depicts a benevolent grandma nevertheless capable of turning wolf. (We are compelled to ask ourselves whether there might be a wink and a nod to the poet’s surname in this poem!) Caring and protective, and having sniffed out neglect (real or imagined), Grandma feeds her granddaughter up, knits her a cape and rounds on the child’s mother for not providing adequately for her. The poet as needlewoman is much in evidence, especially when Grandma prowls the flea market for “off-cuts of calico, dimity, chintz, / rickrack, ribbon and gimp / for her Sawtooth patchwork quilt”.
After Eden, the penultimate poem – and the title of the book – sums up many of the themes, and specifically the lot and fate of woman: “bred / for domesticity, conditioned / to home … builder of nests”. She is a “daughter of Eve” with a lofty purpose but simultaneously a “slavish attraction / to earthiness”. There is so much to savour in this poem, and throughout the book as a whole, in the interleaving of serious intent and playfulness. There are astonishing contrasts in the multiple layers of meaning and purposeful ambiguities, whether portraying the urgency of seduction or the ferocity of a mother’s love. This book richly rewards a reader who enjoys close analysis. Light and shade, heat and chill, sun and moon, male and female, Wales and France are all held in close focus by a highly gifted, sensitive and humane poet who, like the warm and provident Madame Dubois, is “touched by … tenderness” preserving “sweetness to spread over winter’s long denials”.
Fine Lines is available from 4Word Press
Sharon Larkin, January 2019