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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Guest Review: Hymas On Noakes

Sarah Hymas reviews
The Wall Menders
by Kate Noakes

This is a second collection, whose voice is strong, confident, sure of subject and identity. As such it’s a steady illuminating read, a manifesto for environmental awareness.

From the dedication, itself a poem, Noakes declares a pull between external and interior lives in a neat, rhythmical acceptance that hints at a queerly felt displacement. This tension between the sanctuary and hopefulness of outside and the world of work binds the collection.

The first section, Taking a Hammer, is a series of meditations on how the poet travels within the natural world, moving through comfort where moss, mountains and clouds offer a “place where /no-one can touch me”, where she can “float free” and “breathed soft under the massif’s roar”. So far so connected. But with ‘The fire walk’ the tone shifts slightly; as “footprints in the embers hardened/into memory”. This hardening continues in the following poems. Here Noakes considers graffiti, identity chips, maggots and drought, culminating in the most energetic poem of the first section, “Clean burn”.

The imperative tone shook this reader up; suddenly I was being commanded to observe, not just presented with a series of softly turned images. The tonal turn creates a more visceral urgency, laying the path open for her interpretation of Ovid’s tale of Mestra.

There was discussion on the Magma blog last year on the relevance of classical stories in contemporary poetry. And while not completely ‘up-dated’, this retelling acts as the pivot to the collection. For those who don’t know it, Noakes summarizes the story before launching into her own version. As an ‘old’ story, it stands firm in the collection; engagingly crossing between classical and contemporary imagery, emphasising the environmental traditions of Noakes’ subject matter. While I know I was meant to feel repulsion and horror at the story there was a truth to it I welcomed. “The split of crashing timber/is as nothing to the screams of a dying nymph. // Men with chain saws, band saws”. The time of nymphs is coming to an end, if not already long gone, both inside and outside this collection. The renewal within the story, albeit rising from violence, provides hope for a new future. Hope, however, is not enough. Hope is a passive state, wishful thinking, which requires action and vigilance to bring its seeds to fruition.

So, meditations of the first section give way to the labour and physical engagement of the second. Mortar and Lime begins with the poem “New year” and the (possibly unfortunate) chime of being washed ‘back to basics’, and with “A call for action”. Action indeed follows.

We meet the wall-menders of the book’s title, along with peat cutters, sheep shearers, gardeners and other agricultural workers – the severity of which is not skirted around, “Footsore and blistered, hands cracked/ and bloody from a day of slash and burn”. It is in this section language comes alive. Noakes revels in specific terminology, of “our coloured architecture/defined in witcherts/ and dabbins”and how the workers “thought about/scored coping, lunkies for sheep;/ made stiles and badger smoots”. The rhythm of each poem lifts off with hard consonants and internal rhymes. Still the style is fluid and rolling, but with a stronger pulse. Everybody’s sleeves are rolled up.

Then the fruits of labour. The final few poems of the book relish nature’s produce: mushrooms, mistletoe, watercress, shellfish, tea. Here the tone reverts to the more luxuriant first section, but coming after the act of harvesting, they carry a different weight. A knowingness, with less sacred rewards, more physical nourishment and earned delight.

This sequence clusters in couplets and metrical rhythms that relax in long lines. Not that this is unique to the collection, but here the subject and its music seem most harmonious. The poems run in regular stanza lengths. Unstressed syllables frequent line ends, so metre and enjambement are relied upon to stretch meaning and potential, into the space created around the poem. A space edged with lush imagery of pearls, sticky-beaks and minerals a-plenty.

This collection addresses many facets of our interaction with nature, and while some ring louder bells for me than others, all hold water and convince me of their truth for the writer. Noakes writes with a quiet sincerity that tugs at the need for reconsidering how we work with nature, how we live in our imagined landscapes and how we can unite the two.

Sarah Hymas is a poet, puppeteer and sailor.
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