Gemstones and Snowdrops


Aventurine, Edwin Stockdale (32pp, £6.00, Red Squirrel Press)

Aventurine is a very unusual pamphlet. Edwin Stockdale has a passion for 19th century novels and has built this elegant themed collection around them, in particular the Brontes and Elizabeth Gaskell. This is his debut publication and it announces a poet who is meticulous in his writing. He drives his pen into the heart of these novels. For example, in the opening poem, Monkshaven, he expands on Sylvia’s purchase of a new cloak, illuminating her emotions and using the cloak as a symbol of freedom. Stockdale is a poet of place, and Monkshaven is vividly drawn. He begins by describing the countryside she passes through, using it to show her isolation and bleakness:

   Cross a tract of peat
   watched by a brambling
   foraging for seed
   but there are none.

He contrasts these scenes with the tightly-packed houses in the town, and again with the openness of the quay, hinting subtly at her desire to escape and find a new life. He is capable of evocative detail, which strike the imagination with a shock of pleasure, for example, describing her hair as ‘otter-brown’.

‘Snowdrops’ is a beautifully developed sequence, coming out of a moment in Gaskell’s Ruth, when snowdrops are placed on her pillow. One does not need to have read the novel to appreciate the poems, when the sequence begins:

   The stars are enough to break her heart.

The poems take the reader through the protagonist’s life and death, with details as precise as embroidery. Stockdale is excellent at creating mood and letting things speak for themselves. He deploys colours exquisitely to summon up scenes:

   Copper sun glows on lily-pads.
   Viridian dragonflies catch the last of this heat.

   Sand martins scratch a home in the bank,
   a wash of grey wagtail round the pool’s margin.

   Speedwell grows in the shallowest part;
   here and there are water-lilies.

All this gorgeousness of nature is from section iv, ‘Forest Murmurs’, and reflects Ruth in love. The snowdrops of the last section stand in contrast, and the larch covered with snow from the first section reappears in the last: ‘a solitary larch/ branches heavy with snow’. The strong colours and the natural elements are used to give cohesion, and poignantly the sense of the brevity of human life.  Stockdale’s work is astonishingly mature for a poet under 30 years old.

The poem ‘Corrections’ explores the two separate lives of Charlotte Bronte, as identified by Gaskell in her Life of Charlotte Bronte: the writer’s life and the woman’s life, with their different responsibilities. The poem is a testament to the friendship of the two women and the intense concentration of Gaskell while writing it, and the language is once again as precise as it can be:

   Charlotte paces the parlour
   as frost curls its iron fist at the casement.
   She is indelible under moonlight.

The last line quoted above has powerful resonances. The image of Charlotte seems to fill with little parsonage at Haworth, but indelible also refers to the ink both authors write in.

Another sequence, ‘Snow and Fire’, has seven sections, each one about a different place visited by Stockdale, which is an important place for his subject matter, such as places which inspired scenes in the novels, or places they visited or lived, such as ‘Hathersage Moor’, and ‘Rydings, Birtstall’. Each one of these poems is a palimpsest: the poet sees Charlotte and Ellen walking in the garden, or visualises scenes from the novels:

   Is that Grace Poole hurrying?
   A sputtering candle
   in her hand?

Stockdale has immersed himself deeply in his reading but he is also an observer of birds and nature, so these poems never feel stale or old-fashioned. Instead they flicker with life and fresh air, blowing away any cobwebs that might have gathered around the spun-out stories of nineteenth century women. I read this little book from cover to cover with increasing pleasure. Like all Red Squirrel books, the production is exquisite. This debut sets Stockdale up as a poet to watch, a poet of great promise and originality.

     © Angela Topping 2016