by Olivia Cole
Flipping through a row or so of poetry collections it’s hard to find many with a portrait of the poet on the front cover, and those poets who do appear are invariably dead and therefore unlikely to have played much part in the jacket design. So it’s a bold beginning for Olivia Cole to have a nude portrait of herself, albeit a snippet, our view restricted, on the cover of her debut collection, one which might seem a little self-reverential, a little narcissistic, but the poems inside are so thoroughly fresh, outward looking and, well, un-narcissistic that she manages to pull it off.
In fact Cole tends to eschew the usual first collection material of the deeply personal, of childhood experience and family, and instead takes us across time zones into foreign countries and foreign centuries, revealing a vigorous imagination along the way. In “Ponte Sant’Angelo” she deftly slips into the stone mouth and stone skin of one of Bernini’s angels, and in “Bridal Suite” into the young skin of a Medici child bride. The poem describes the chamber where Eleanor de Toledo will live when the artists “Vasari and Bronzino have rolled/ up their plans, white spirited their brushes”, a room with a painted moon, “of all the mad chaste things to paint on my wall,/circling the earth, an assigned path,” and painted birds “freeze framed as free,/ in flight and always the right way.” The language is simple, exuberant and youthful.
The cover suggests Cole’s interest in the role of the writer, the person who in the poem of that name is “full of other lives, chasing ghosts from room to room.” In this collection she doesn’t seem to be so much chasing her subjects as standing back, observing from a distance, from high up on a balcony in “Balcony Scene”, from behind a newspaper and geraniums in “The Fall Project”, or through “steam and water and glass” in “Flight Paths”, a poem where her interest is in the “glimpsed specifics” of the world outside. “Move in too close and this world could fall/ apart - ” she says in “Bathers At Asnieres” across the page (note the nice line break), and you get the sense that sometimes life is better viewed from a distance, get too close and everything is just a bunch of cells, like an Impressionist painting made up of dots.
The view might often be restricted but the writing in this collection is direct and precise. The title poem has the writer on stage, watched from behind a pillar:
as he tells of how, “the life’s not the
romantic cutting off of one’s ear” and tenderly
strokes his own – still there – visible through
the pauses that load the swirling air.
This poem is one long, carefully controlled sentence and shows Cole’s key strength, her firm grasp of extended syntax, the final “air” taking off from the earlier “there” and “ear”, and revealing her own fine rhythmic ear.
While Cole excels at the sustained sentence, sometimes her imagery fails to ignite. A spotlight that moves “as gently and intently as a lover” seems a bit vague for my taste and stars “tin-foil bright” might have worked in a poem about children, but not in “Matins.” Having said that this poem contains my favourite line of the collection: “my plane a trail of latte cloud to go…”, the final “to go” turning a decent image into a wonderful one, and setting the poem up for the witty “the big eyed goddess of Starbucks cups/the only face tilted up at the sky”.
Cole is a journalist as well as a poet (no oxymoron we’re reminded in the acknowledgements) and the day job is hinted at in the cover portrait which is made of little pieces of newsprint. If Mathew Arnold’s definition of journalism is to be believed, that it is “literature in a hurry”, then the debut collection of a journalist is going to be an exciting event – there’s nothing hurried about fifty short pages that probably took ten years or so to pull together. And this is a carefully put together collection, beginning, appropriately enough, with the assured sonnet “Breaking the Ice”, and ending “the jasmine/ and the empty paper racks, sold out,/ with no news due for days”, hinting perhaps that the oxygen of Cole’s world lies more in poetry than journalism.
Mel Pryor is an English poet.