Understanding the Terrain

, Isabel Galleymore (34pp, 7.00, Worple Press)
The Told World
, Angela Gardner (83pp, 8.95, Shearsman )
What the Ground Holds,
Rosie Jackson (40pp, 5.00, Poetry Salzburg)
Ground Signs
, Isabel Palmer (34pp, 4.50, Flarestack)

My review copy of Isabel Galleymore's Dazzleship was pinched, I raved about it so much. What's better than opening a page at random and feeling the earth jump? Here's what did it, 'Girl and Father':

         This girl sitting on her father's shoulders
         is and is not her father:

         they are one small giant
         with four arms two stacked heads,

         they are simply two different people together.

          Two different people,
          but one is carrying another - 

          one carries the form of the eyes,
          the contempt for pineapple
          and the walk that prioritizes toe over heel
          years after they disassemble.

Galleymore's collection is seismic; surreal, daring assertions of simbiosis and cause and effects. It shakes off any trace of the banal; bold ideas hide in the odd interplay of delicate natural images.  The thought and writing is too sophisticated to doubt, and you can't see how its done; it's unique. As each poem's exquisite logic slowly unravels, the strange and subtle connectedness of all living things becomes indisputable. It excites me but I've been caught like this before so tested it out with multiple readings, and it didn't fall apart. It wasn't a trick of artifice, or a conceit, and I wanted to leave everything behind and move into this perception where all is one. I like a poem to shift you somewhere better. So it's exciting, and I'm struggling here and there, but surprised, delighted and confronted. Do tiny actions really have momentous outcomes across time and space? Are animals and humans working together even when they don't know it?  Is it impossible for us to ever extricate ourselves from each other?  You can't land on the same spot after reading Galleymore's interpretations of interdependence. 

Reading Angela Gardner's The Told World I heard an underlying whisper which was sometimes curious and sometimes querulous, 'What will happen to us?'  I sense more fear here than in her early collections, Parts of Speech (2007) and View of the Hudson (2009). I think it's because the concrete is now definitely disappearing; things and sensations merge and blur, the lack of continuity becomes ominous, and I long for colour and distinctions. And yet, and yet, it's so alive! Just as the poems are kept fluid by the birds flying in and out and the come and go of rain, and more rain, this scape is in perpetual and rhythmic motion, foreground and background intercepting to and fro - not pulsed by dying and rebirth, but pulsating beyond mortal limit. We are far out and the ground is - gone! But then we experience afresh.

Take these lines from 'Landscape with Birdsong':
        In the moments that we believe
        before theatre begins
        some truth is hammering in the cavity of the body.
        So needy we hardly recognise our own
        in the birdsong.

Lots of flips of subject here, but sensitivity is put above behavior, to balance our worldly numb.  Then it's daunting again, for example, 'Burden': 

       Compare with just, with wing:
       the unravel, the very place
       the door you lean against
       in the usual hardwearing.

Lines 2 and 4 recur in the next stanza but I'm none the wiser. Hardwearing as a noun? It is hard to extract lines. They go dull and lose themselves out of the whole. You have to work with it all, and not separate the bits you don't get. Nothing actually stands alone. Maybe that's the point, and that's where this collection meets the proposal in Dazzle Ship,
and the faith in What the Ground Holds.
It's big stuff and miraculously saved from seriousness or density by Gardner's enjoyment of invention as in 'We are Called', 'the unwieldy zorse, the liger and wholphin' and the humour of the final section, 'Solo Estoy Mirando'. The wide sweep of knowledge and interest and the light, spacious composition ensure it's never oppressive, even when you're stuck. I found it useful to take breaks and come back to it, and over time the atmosphere became the most important thing, the climate in which to let myself not know.

The scope and scale of these poems and their varied penetrability make uneven demands on the reader. This is no bad thing in itself, but the six segments feel like unrelated projects and I'm not sure how well they fit together. 

Gardner's unfixed picture can seem too intangible and scary, but she also reminds us how things can work simultaneously in the small material and large metaphysical, as in 'Beyond the Footlights':

      Dream a darkness beyond the footlights
      and even if you cannot stand
      to read our eyes for applause or censure
      at least we are here

Phew. Maybe it was me who was whispering.

What the Ground Holds reports back, in different moods, colours and states of hope, from the underworld. 'Persephone' calls it the 'long labyrinth of winter' - an uninviting message of hard and cold. Our interest is arrested by an unexpected warmth in the writing that keeps you close and in your body while the unreliable mind's journey unfolds. 

The collection opens with, 'I can't tell you...' , a funny and clever behind hand conspiratorial gesture that hits the familiar and the ironic, bonding writer and reader in one stroke with objective distance. It's wittily poised to include the other, and rouse enthusiasm for uneasy talk. It's significant that the reader/writer relationship is so deftly worked for at the start in this way and continuously valued, given the narrative crisis. It might be all there is. Lostness, stuckness and chaos are all told and apparent, but the driving poetic impulse is so much bigger than that, and reaches for more; archetypal clues, art, other women's lives and deaths - all these inspire urgent curiosity and investigation to make some saving sense and contact.

You can feel the underlying desperation to find things, anything that makes it worth staying alive. That the private, alienating hell is made bearable through cultural connection is the collection's most important declaration.  This is a well demonstrated statement about the value of art and literature as human medicine. Persephone's 'terror of being down there' is depersonalised by the discipline of looking outward, further than the self, for clues, understanding, help. Help! And a lot becomes available, through the humbling search, in the form of information re-experienced by the healing poetic imagination. A flying duck on a wall in 'Recovery Stroke' leads to this:

        knowing before being told
        that moving forward

         requires a moving back,
         that no stroke is wasted

         that the greatest beauty sometimes
         happens at the weakest point.

Exquisite. The soft control is typical, calming, and makes possible an awakening trust in tenderness. 

Although well published, this is Isabel Palmer's first pamphlet and I am already queuing up for the next. The context is informative and worth passing on. These poems were written as a Monday ritual; one a week to her son while he was on foot patrol in Afghanistan searching for Improvised Explosive Devices. They live together apart, in fear and stealth, mother and son, as if they were each other's lifeline. The terror is often unbearable, the danger palpable. Palmer's less obvious task is creeping up on the insidious ways in which war is normalised and glorified, and then disarming them. Here she is in 'Signs':

      So when you see
      that squaddie, who lost his legs,
      whose fingers, on his rifle hand, clung
      to his elbow like scorched fruit

      on his way to Medals Parade,
      his laughter rattling like old bones,
      you have to look away.

This is an easy, open one but Palmer also tackles the more private, subtle shifts of distance that war puts between people as in 'Whatever':

    The memory is there 
    of a journey to another time
    from which you and I returned changed,
    our lives spelt differently
    one letter at a time.....

    and our conversations are all about
    whatever doesn't matter anymore.

So the killing will happen somewhere, even when bombs are disarmed and poems written, there's the unspoken collateral which Palmer gives voice to.

The tension of this collection forces re-reading and re-examination of all our responses to war and those pulled into it. This is a mother who can do nothing for her endangered son but  keep track, alongside him, trying to understand the terrain, questioning each clue, test every meaning, and stay as close as the given work demands.

     Sarah Hopkins 2015