by Virginia Warbey (1968 – 2004)
Virginia Warbey was born near Rainham in Essex, 40 years ago. She was already writing poetry and prose before she read English at Liverpool University, or took her MA in Creative Writing at Chichester. Two novels (The Ropemaker's Daughter and The Carradine Diary) were published by Diva; her first poetry collection, A Legacy of Echoes, was published when she was 22. She was killed in a car crash at the age of 36 at a time when she was working on a new novel and planning a seond poetry collection.
She was a member of the Chandler's Ford Writers' Group, who helped to ensure the publication of Ratified, her second and posthumous collection. It is a sad and powerful witness to a poet in the process of change and development.
From the beginning, there is a sure grasp of rhythm, and of the power of the line-break. Her work is always characterised by a strong sensuality and sudden breaks of humour; also by delight in the unexpected, in wildlife and wild places.
Poems which are probably among the earlier ones tend to the mellifluous, full of liquid syllables and soft rhythms; there is a young voice, tending to drop back at times into the beautifications of adolescence.
"Diving for Pearls" is an adolescent romance full of yearning; "he rolls pale worlds like vowels upon his tongue" could also stand for the language of the poem itself. However, Virginia's young voice could also be direct, and emotionally honest; "Drunk" rolls out a world of fierce (and drunken) adolescent triumph.
Her humour is at times the salt that transforms a poem, as Virginia punctures her own apparent sentimentality. Sometimes this works very effectively, sometimes not. The homey voice of the poem "In Love with John Boy Walton" whips out to an astringent and unexpected ending, leading to a re-reading of the homey phrases in terms of irony. But if the whole of this poems is to be read in terms of irony, there is altogether too much of the homey voice for it to be rescued by the ending.
A similar subversion occurs in "Pheasant", and is carried through in a far more mature and successful manner (although the third stanza is over-long and falls back to "telling" the reader). "Pheasant" places the cliched phrases within a minefield that blows them one by one to pieces. The underlying subversive intentions of "John Boy Walton" are repeated – but with a development of cadence, form and imagery that contrasts the adult to the adolescent voice.
The maturity of voice varies from poem to poem, and within poems. "In a Nest of Bones" describes a child's remembered grieving over the bones of a pet budgerigar. This is delicately handled, but the shift to the mud-buried bones at Verdun is not carried by the conceit of imagined re-constitution. Perhaps the 'dark side' was not yet within Virginia's reach at this time.
Similarly, the subject of "A dream of falling" is sudden death and its re-experience in dream, but the language –as in "feeling his surprise" - does not convey the shock of the sudden end of a life - with great irony.
Inevitably, there are steps forward and back within poems. "The Wrong End of the Sparkler" moves in its middle two stanzas into a wryly reflective maturity:
Always looking frontways since, attending
to the job in hand,
while just behind me doors swing shut and circles close...
Nothing harsh, dramatic; the ache of
- but the last stanza sets up a reassuring scenario that 'bad' can magically be turned back into 'good'. Virginia's need to reassure - (herself? Her readers? ) – was a constant in much of her work: it begins to give way in poems such as "Soap Suds" and "Pheasant". Her tendency to strain for an ending that will tidy things up also belongs in this area: as in "Find Summore", which has no need of its last line.
What is fascinating in this collection is that in and out of these poems, Virginia gradually began to find her own voice and authority. Although there is no stated chronology to the collection, there are poems which begin to break away into a new voice. In "Blue Touch of Love", there is more showing and less telling, and in "Soap Suds" there is no rescue plan for the difficult ending:
Nothing looks the same behind
your eyes, and I'm just someone that they say you knew
"The Story Cheetahs" is one of the most seductively attractive of her poems. It gathers her talents together, and when the last stanza appears to collapse into sentimentality she subverts the reader's perceptions at the end by her dry humour, with "the quicksilver heels of delusion".
This collection is full of delightful surprises. It is also a conundrum, in that Virginia's voice of authority and maturity comes and goes – like quicksilver. It would be good to think that the humour which would take John Boy "up onto the mountain" to do what she "wanted to do;/ whipped off his glasses, his blue dungarees,/ [and] taught him a thing or two" would also have enabled her to confront and write more effecively about the 'dark side'. It is not that she avoided it, but that she did not yet have the language for it. It remains impossible to say what the eventual outcome would have been.
Valerie Lynch is a British poet.
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