Barbara Smith reviews
by Angela France
Occupation is one of those words with many applications. In the case of Angela France’s new collection, from Ragged Raven Poetry, it can stand for the different named occupations explored in poems through various voices: the bookbinder, the mortician, the florist and the office worker. But it can also stand for those whose life’s work is a calling, a pursuit: the violinist, the witch and the shapeshifter’s wife. The other meaning that is explored less overtly, is that of the occupied – the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed – in poems which explore the idea of the invisible woman, the older woman; the life’s repository of knowledge, and even beauty, that older people have and which our culture chooses to ignore. This strand is subtler, but nevertheless extant for the reader to divine, through the use of vibrant language and sonic devices that make poems ring across their meaning.
Indeed it is this rich use of language which keeps the poems grounded, even when the subject is making a fair leap, as in ‘Rejecting Gravity.’ This Crouching Tiger style poem reveals the imagistic possibilities of the positive in a new twist, whilst rejecting the labels cast upon women: “My first thoughtless soar ended / in daylight on a car park roof; left / me shaken, possibilities fizzing / under my skin.” Here the sonics point towards good prospects in self-discovery, but it is the “pot shots from hunters / clay pigeons shooters, boys with air guns,” that make the subject cautiously move to cover themselves. We are forced to ask if we have to hide both ourselves and our talents; especially when the last stanza reinforces this; the “ballast” of “other weighted women” points towards the idea of having to remain invisible in some way, in order not to be made feel Other; outside society’s perceived norm. The last lines “We know / what we could do” beg us to supply the rest of an imagined if: if only we were let.
Throughout the collection, France consistently sides with the disenfranchised and the lower registers of hearing, those we might not hear in the cacophony of life’s river. A quiet unspoken love is investigated in ‘The Light Beneath,’ where a relationship between a “dour” man and his wife is weighed through the acts of small kindnesses from him to her, rather than his verbal expression. These small acts are what make marriage more than bearable: “how he got up first for thirty years / to make the coffee, how he’s always folded / his warm legs around her feet on winter nights.” Separately, the curse of the writer – that almost unhinged state that writers sometimes occupy – is explored in ‘Victor Knows the Danger of Words.’ Anyone who writes and has felt their words take wing only to land like the first flight fledgling, would identify with this line: “he feels his heart jump / into a verb, waits for it to straight line.” Sometimes all a writer can do is to hope they channel the words correctly.
As Michael Longley has wryly remarked on writing poetry: “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.” France’s poems in Occupation seem understated at first read, almost quiet, but the real strength of the collection lies in her ability to create imagined realities where the reader isn’t told what, where or how to read. The ambiguities of the English language and its deployment, whether in everyday speech or in the heightened locus of meaning in poetry mean that the reader must always pay close attention to the multiplicity of meaning layered in her poems. Paying attention to the wider meanings of occupation has reaped many poetic rewards for France, both literal, in the competition sense, but also in the wider sense of a heightened lingual tool-kit, which is personal and exciting.
In her own words from ‘Learning to Play the Violin by Holding a Bow’, one must “Move always from your centre to master / the owl’s dark swoop if you would release / the lark ascending.” This is an apt musical metaphor that speaks to the idea of poetry in all of us. Enjoy this collection as a series of pearls chosen specifically for their right place of belonging in the strand of ‘Occupation’.
Barbara Smith is a frequent contributor to Eyewear, and a poet, creative writing teacher, and leading Irish literary blogger.
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