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Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Guest Review: Pugh on Corbett

Meryl Pugh reviews
Other Beasts
by Sarah Corbett

By this, her third collection, it is clear that Sarah Corbett has gathered around her a compelling set of personal motifs; childhood, animals (horses, in particular), hills, moors and the night. It would be lazy to call her work Gothic, because it doesn't deliberately set out to create unease, but her poems accept the blood-and-guts surrounding life (a single eyeball, a dead hare), and often find solace in the strangeness that night brings.

Corbett is adept at the well-placed, acute image; two girls caught by lightning are 'a puzzle in each others' arms' in 'Lightning', rabbits have unnerving, 'bead-berry eyes' in 'Nocturne', and she uses juxtapositions that are often startling – and startlingly beautiful. For example, a fox tosses a sheep corpse over its back 'like a crown of blossom' in 'Fox at Midnight', and the 'Mountain Pony' settles 'the bird of its fear' on a concrete floor.

There's a density to the diction, caused by strong consonance. Follow the recurrence of f, t and l sounds in these two other examples of beautiful, acute imagery: Hale Bopp is 'a fist of flung glitter' in 'Comet', and in 'Rivers, Roads', '...the city just left' is '...frost on leaf, just that'. The packed repetition of consonants slows the line down, forcing the reader to enunciate clearly and giving the words a deliberated weight, which underscores the evident rhythmic control of the lines. Corbett shares that control with her presiding spirit, Elizabeth Bishop, whose work furnishes several of the poems with epigraphs.

This is how I'd scan the end of 'Birthday', the first poem in the book (the italicised syllables being those with the heaviest stress):

' I bark, bark. Other beasts
complain back under the weight of dark.'

I'm aware there are other scansion possibilities, especially at the start of that last line, but this is how I'd read it. Notice the slip back into iambic rhythm at the end, releasing the narrator into the night through which she runs. Notice also, the dense patterning of those hard consonants, not to mention the use of rhyme. When this occurs, the poem seems a solid, precise thing, shaped by axes and chisels. This is distinctively Corbett; her music.

This poet is clearly beginning to look well beyond the sphere of the immediately personal (which is often allied with a contemporary, physical perspective on the pastoral). One sequence of poems derives its subject from photographs by Jeff Wall. Another takes the news not only as its subject but also its substance; it was created by collaging headlines that appeared at the start of the Iraq War. And it is when given a subject not directly related to the autobiographical self that Corbett's gifts really come alive. 'Dreaming History', set in a time of civil war, and the sequence 'Testimony', based on the murder of Peter Falconio, are vivid, urgent and convincing. I wonder what Corbett's imagination might do outside the confines of the modern lyric poem. I'm looking forward to the appearance of the verse novel on which she's currently working.

I can't help thinking she's a little ill-served by the emphasis placed on her work's autobiographical content. Would I have known about "the troubled childhood spent in north Wales, redeemed by a love of horses" if I hadn't read the blurb on the back of Other Beasts? I'm not sure. I might have guessed something. A more interesting question is, do I need that knowledge to enjoy and make meaning of this collection? And there I think the answer has to be no.

Of course, Corbett writes out of her autobiography. How can a lyric poet – or indeed, any writer – fail to do otherwise? But the writing has to move beyond the details of a life, otherwise, as Billy Collins has observed, the poem risks failing 'to take advantage of the imaginative liberty that poetry offers' and becoming no more than 'an entry in the log of the self's journey'. [i] I don't find the closed, charged chamber of the confessional poem in Other Beasts, nor a meander through the past's titbits. Instead, I find a series of beautiful, unsettling, lyric moments, and several compelling sequences that look outwards to the contemporary and wider world.

[i] Billy Collins (2001), 'My Grandfather's Tackle Box: The Limits of Memory-Driven Poetry' in Poetry, Vol. 178, No. 8, pp. 278-287, p. 281.

Meryl Pugh has reviewed for Poetry London and Poetry Review. She obtained a distinction in the MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. A pamphlet collection, Relinquish, was published by Arrowhead Press in 2007.
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