It's All in the Title

A Scarlet Thread
, Elizabeth Burns (10pp, £4.00, Wayleave)
Those April Fevers, Mary O'Donnell (85pp, £8.99, Arc)
Nimbus Movements
, Debbie Walsh
   (78pp, £8.00, Knives Forks and Spoons)

Elizabeth Burns' poetic interests keep her very close to art and artists. She interrogates art as a poet,  working in collaborative projects with painters and craftspeople to add an extra dimension or view, through poetry.

Here is a new and exquisitely produced pamphlet of just ten poems, all working off the title image.They are an homage to Scottish artist Anne Redpath (1895-1965) and a delving into what made or helped her, to paint in the distinctive way she did. The simple title image comes from Anne's childhood memory of watching her father, a tweed designer, as he wove. She was struck by a surprising red thread that ran through the apparently dull, grey cloth. The image stayed in the growing artist's imagination and had a lasting impact on her work. 

The poems trace how that vivid experience influenced her painting both technically and emotionally, whether it be border landscapes or domestic still life pictures. The memory becomes the cue and signature for unexpected outbreaks of colour, that shout out for verve and boldness and add extra meaning and narrative. This is what the poet sees in 'Painting the Borders in Wartime 1 (Landscape with Mill, 1918)':

                                       But here in the foreground,
           a glimmer of gold in the tree, a streak
          of pale apple-green on the ground, a foretaste
          of what is to come - the end of the war....
          ....being in love...

The sequence is a mix of biography and commentary on Redpath's life and work, producing a descriptive argument for the importance of colour as a gesture and an attitude to life; as a counter to darkness.

The pursuit of the single image becomes a problem for me in the poems which I find over literal and too narrowly focussed. The message repeats itself and I find its treatment too obvious. But  they have provoked me. Formally, they achieve a compression of detail, background and foreground (much like a painting, I now realise) which, when you look at the scope of information, and how tightly and lightly it is held, is a feat of crystalisation, 'Her Eldest Son' and 'Spain', being good examples. And subjectively, the insistence and singularity of purpose, forced me to give more and deeper attention to the formative power of early images on our perception and how we may be lucky enough to translate the best of them into action. It's a simple idea, but that is Burns' gift, making it undismissable.

O'Donnells sixth poetry collection shows her experience in a range of conventional blank verse forms  - short lyric to long narrative, in couplets, tercets, quatrains and prose poems. Her subjects here are mostly peopled events - weddings, funerals, reunions, meetings and reverie stimulated by interactions with her lover because she is, still and above all, committed to clarity about her own and others' behaviour.

In her essay, 'What Poetry Is'

 she proposes that a poem is triggered by anxiety and then moves towards some kind of resolution. Could this also be her own lifetime trajectory, traceable through the writing? As the title suggests, this is a more retrospective collection and the early intensities have softened, there's a calmer objective space than in previous poems, and a tendency to see and write more simply. But her instinct for self-preservation, and capacity for clear-thinking emotional assessment, are still there. This warning in 'Waking' for instance:

                             See my breasts, the dusky nipples,

           two strong legs, my sea-green toenails, and remember:
           your ship, but this my shore, created in your absence.

Such a confident, tender warning.

And the warm appreciation which follows in 'Beyond Myths':

           only you can look me in the eye,

           and want to, only you can see the shape
           beyond the myths.

Her success owes a lot to this capacity to confront and welcome by turns, and to voice these dual perspectives from either side of love's boundary. Are we our geography? She was born in Co.Monaghan on the Republic of Ireland's edge onto Northern Ireland.

In 'On Fitzwilliam, After a Budget' O'Donnell shows us how poetry can stay artistically alert, concerned, and searching while the poet has reached the other end of anxiety. Here she has  achieved and allowed herself a well-earned personal peace: 

           Thirty years on,
           the carcass rippers maul again,
           money-lenders scatter, their coins void.

           Yet, like us, the couple on Fitzwilliam
           kiss and kiss again, the world's rough edges
           briefly smooth as they linger to drift
           and pause along the railings
           their eyelids closing out the day.

Debbie Walshs Nimbus Movements looked very enticing: the equivocal 'nimbus' right there, on the cover, with references to 'breathing'  'thunder', 'single notes'  and 'pauses' in haphazard scraps of printed text. Opening it, and reading a few passages, I could trust it, which was odd as it's full of words no-one uses: 'vertriculous', 'hebenon' 'paretic', but that's always a bonus. Something was already working on me so I moved to the sofa to become immersed in a sensually spoken film. I can see, hear and touch it all. Is that what's meant by 'making sense'? That's what it does, and my relief is in the enjoyment of being able to read it with my body as well as my brain.

It's all written in multi-spaced, foreshortened word or phrase-lines, starting anywhere, and falling down the page. This style often frustrates me like a stop start fairground ride, where you get stuck and cant find a way in or out. It makes you want to yell, but not this time. Walsh uses slowness, resting places, physical detail, tumbling thoughts, the movement across physical contours, the conversational shifts between sensation, observation and insight and, above all settings - time and place.  The writing is lived in, crafted and tested - the skills of texture and pace hidden in the individual sound values, the open vowels and sibilance sharpened by sudden hard consonants giving it clear edge and structure. I find it sensuously and sexually active on the page and love the way it meanders through ordinary moments, wide-awake with confident brevity as in 'Gateway':

           It's six forty-five

                          cars                      exhale

                          grind                    along

                    buses bunch



                                  doors close.

Apart from the astutely used concrete poetry effects,  it's the tiredness of the first two images,  the hope elicited in 'and' and then the gap after 'everywhere' long enough for us all to look round, searching for the antidote - but meeting only flatness - the end of interaction, the moment of becoming invisible, silenced, disconnected.  What I applaud is being given the experience with the lightest of prompts - the poet's grasp of respectful distance and the wisdom of word/space choices.

Here again, from 'Miasma Love':

                     I watch






Again, the picture on the page effect - those eyes moving from side to side. The slippage is playful and serious, who or what does the watching, the undressing? It reminds me of Freud's idea that whenever you have sex there are four more watching. It also reminds me of the best of that ground-breaking anthology Out of Everywhere
edited by Maggie O'Sullivan.

But isn't Walsh's strength finding the right word and then refusing to qualify anything? The whole project is naked.

This style has often made me drowsy. The spaciousness can make it sound flat when read to yourself. I didn't tire of this at all, because Walsh's scenes are specifically different landscapes, moments and tones. It doesn't go on. She instinctively jerks away from monotone. I think it's difficult to make this style work in a way that combines softness with intelligent realization where neither dominates - and she does it.

        © Sarah Hopkins 2015