Fine Lines

A review of Stella Wulf’s After Eden (4Word Press, 2018)

 

screen shot 2019-01-08 at 18.03.03

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

Review: Sloth and the Art of Self-Deprecation – by Brett Evans

Pamphlet, published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-08-28 at 23.29.00

 

Sloth: an arboreal mammal with a very low metabolism, slow and deliberate in its movements, sloth being related to the word slow. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

 

On picking up this pamphlet, the reader quickly realizes that Sloth is both animal and philosopher … and that double meanings, clever wordplay and a jazz/blues soundtrack will course through the poems.

First contact is with Sloth on the rocks, linking the hero/anti-hero to the Martini in his three-clawed paw on book’s cover; the cocktail will be a recurrent metaphor in the book. Or perhaps the rocks hint that Sloth might at times feel imperilled, stranded on a diminishing outcrop while a foaming sea rages about him. Perhaps they foreshadow Sloth’s apparent affinity with the Icarus narrative – the rise, only to risk the catastrophic fall (one of the themes of the poem Bull).

The poet’s deployment of words with multiple meanings, startling images, occasional shock, and layered metaphors ensures that our experience of this slim pamphlet will be so much greater than the sum of its twenty five poems. Ambivalence about fame and success, a justifiable disinclination to reach up or reach out for fear of falling, can be discerned as major themes in this pamphlet, but what is diffidence if not an honest symptom of the daily struggle ­to survive, against the odds?

Most comfortable at home in his familiar habitat, you will most likely find philosopher-Sloth in a dressing gown or shirt, stained with some body fluid or other, or still abed in skid-marked sheets towards noon, no friend of the dawn chorus or the cold caller … and certainly not a willing entertainer of knockers with evangelical intent. Sloth is often encountered revelling in his mammalian glory – a belly-hauling, ball-scratching, farting, shitting, pissing organism par excellence. He laps and guzzles, and is not good at exercising restraint. Even as a sloth-child, he experienced “excesses driven beyond volition” (Philosophies and Maladies).

Philosopher-Sloth also enjoys certain refined pleasures, such as the Martinis, but these are knocked back with a penalty his mother (“the barmaid”) failed to warn him about. The risk of falling/fear of failing – of being similarly knocked back – prove to be companionable, but quite unworthy, drinking partners. It might feel safer, and less of an ordeal, not to stray too far from one’s comfort zone, whether that is “a tree of his own” or “the second-hand wingback chair / with torn upholstery” but, with sociable Sloth, the reader also visits a series of pubs, bars, jazz and blues clubs and boozy streets, in search of other comfortable perches, epitomized by the “well-padded bar stool”.

It soon becomes clear that Sloth is no sluggard or slouch when it comes to erudition. He is well read with a stack of books at one hand, balancing the inevitable Martini at the other. He knows his James Joyce, his F Scott Fitzgerald, his Hemingway; can recognize a Hogarth … and that shipwreck-saviour, the Raft of the Medusa; and he is intimately acquainted with the two-edged xiphoi of the Spartans who cut a dash across the upholstery of his comfy seat.

The sloth-heavy themes of the book are helped along by both humour and the ever-present soundtrack: a procession of mostly American jazz and blues musicians and combos in a variety of haunts. The reader soon becomes infected by foot-tapping, while the blues supply regular infusions of humanity. Sloth’s hallmark is a compassion for the underdog … and the abused. This finds ultimate expression in the final poem: Sloth and the Snake (for the Standing Rock Sioux), telling of the colonized first-nation inhabitants of North/South Dakota, victims of so many broken treaties, whose territory has recently undergone yet another episode of exploitation, imperilling water supplies and thus their very existence. I detect in this poem fellow-feeling for fellow-sufferers.

Having reread and reread this pamphlet since it arrived through my letterbox, I have come to enjoy more and more the consummate wordplay, inspired line-breaks, startling images, rich accumulation of metaphors and calculated shocks. There are even a couple of rhymed poems, cunningly wrought (I’m in awe of any poet with the audacity to rhyme Jew’s with billet doux). I have reached the conclusion that there is a virtuoso performer playing here, and that any diffidence (certainly not sloth) may have in the past dictated more modest ‘venues’ than the ‘arenas’ to which this artist might have aspired. I am glad this work has joined his previous volume (The Devil’s Tattoo, Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2015) ­… with the same worthy publisher.

While weighty questions are raised by this slim body of poetry, the work buzzes with wit and verve, belly laughs sharing space with a rare artistic sensibility, humanity teamed with courage. Solace comes mercifully, in the shape of an odalisque, in the nuzzling of freckled skin, and in a rather special two-course meal. Predictably and unashamedly, my favourite poem in the book is Big Women and Men of Imagination, closely followed by Sloth on Fine Dining both for its absolute filth and as a decent sonnet. Positively Shit Street – Rhyl to Venus deserves a mention for its splendid last line “goggling Venusians wondering what fucking planet we were on.” Other favourite lines from this master of one-liners come from The Martini as Big as the Ritz, (“Enough ice to reassure the polar bear”) and Bull (“The house of unrising bums” ­– hat tip to Eric Burdon).

Sloth notwithstanding, there is no excuse, at all, for the poet to be self-deprecatory about this latest volume. The craft – no, the art – in this pamphlet rises up, rampant, and bursts forth, unashamed and unapologetic.

 

 

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