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Guest Review: Chingonyi On Phethean

Kayo Chingonyi reviews
Breath
by Ellen Phethean

The blurb on the back cover says that the poems in this collection ‘chart the course’ of the years following major bereavement. As a result of this I came to the book with some assumptions. I expected poems of lament exploring the theme of loss and expressing pain. While such poems are represented in the collection there is also work ranging from musings on childhood, the importance of geographical location, the disparities between the past and present as well as a number of poems on parenthood.

To Phethean’s credit, the elegies do attempt to avoid sentimentality and convey something other than the sadness of loss. The poem ‘An Ancient Calling’, for example, functions as a praise song for those who ‘move us on’ when we are faced with the death of a loved one. This provides a surprising take on the elegy since it serves both to describe the helplessness of grief but also the process by which people rebuild their lives after losing a loved one. This makes for an evocative reading experience and stands out among the highlights of
the book.

Unfortunately, not all the poems are as convincing as the one quoted above. ‘Eating Her Children’, which takes as its conceit the striking image of a mother consuming her offspring, ultimately fails to achieve the promise of its central idea. The poem begins with the children as ‘milky puddings, /delicate as junket’ and ends with the mother having to spit out her eldest child who has become ‘sharp as anchovies’. On the face of it, this is an imaginative way into the subject but the extended metaphor doesn’t hold up because the descriptions of literal eating do not adequately represent what the poem is trying to say about parenthood. ‘Eating Her Lover’ is far more convincing as its conceit is handled in subtler fashion:

She plucked at his glasses,
broken winged,
opened his wardrobe,
touched his cottons,

Here the act of ‘eating’ becomes the process by which the bereaved find solace in objects that belonged to the dead. This invites the reader to assess how the concept of eating links with the healing process Phetean is describing and thereby achieves the effect aimed for in ‘Eating Her Children’.

Some of the best poems in the collection are those that explore loss in the wider context of social change and cultural history. A particular success is the poem ‘The West End’ which charts the cultural history of an area of Newcastle with an admirable lightness of touch:

Thin women pushing buggies
roll their eyes at families
up ahead who speak too loud
                        a language they can’t comprehend;
                        May sells mooli, bottle gourds,
                        English apples in dwindling varieties.

This poem shows that Phethean has a keen eye for detail and an ability to write with economy. That last line in particular captures in five words what might take a paragraph to explain in an essay on the subject. This mix of descriptive flair and linguistic concision is also shown in the impressive ‘Sorrow’, which figures sadness as a
quiet figure biding its time, as well as a number of poems throughout the book.

I should dwell briefly on the structure of the collection. It is split into three parts each linked thematically to the central ideas of life, death and taking stock. This structure serves the poems well as it establishes and maintains a through line which makes the collection feel like a cohesive whole. Whilst this does make for a coherent reading experience, certain strategies (like ending a poem with an epiphany) do start to feel repetitive. This is particularly clear in poems such as ‘Tulse Hill, 1968’ where the closing lines overstate
what could have been left unsaid: ‘looking back it was obvious/I would betray you – now it’s too late for redress.’

There are two Ellen Phethean’s at work in ‘Breath’. There is one attempting to express the significance of personal grief and there is the poet looking out from the personal into wider territory. I think the poems in the latter category are, in the main, more successful though there are some genuinely evocative poems exploring bereavement directly. The poems themselves rarely offer consolation but there is a universality to them which is likely to engage readers who have suffered a recent bereavement as well as those taking stock of their
lives. Carrying off such a book is a difficult thing. Phethean does well to make the book about more than just what the reader expects.

Though there were some poems that misfired this collection is worth a look for its sharply observed descriptions, typically economical diction and sometimes surprising takes on perennial subject matter.

Kayo Chingonyi is a British poet.
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