Skip to main content

Guest Review: Pryor On Cole

Mel Pryor reviews
Restricted View
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”.

While the epigraph taken from Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies makes it clear that the writer can, like Mr Chatterbox, invent his subject matter, it is the poems that seem most autobiographical and apparently self-revelatory, about love and its vagaries, that I most enjoyed in this collection. “Matinee Idol” begins with Cole’s customary directness: “I was seventeen, you’re joking? Christ alive, but shifts tone mid poem ending “words slowed and eye to eye/ my head was in your hands, my mouth/ on yours; the empty theatre lying dark and low/ on a tide that flowed all the way to winter”, showing that Cole is capable of writing lyrically as well as conversationally. It was only on its second reading I realized she had managed to describe, tenderly and unflinchingly and without seeming clichéd, a snog. That’s no mean feat.

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.


Jane Holland said…
Where's this nude cover shot of Olivia Cole, then? I really feel we should be shown it, if only to judge for ourselves whether or not it's a 'bold move'.

Not that I'm desperately interested, of course. Seen one naked poet, seen 'em all.

Popular posts from this blog

Review of the new Simple Minds album - Walk Between Worlds

Taste is a matter of opinion - or so goes one opinion. Aesthetics, a branch of pistols at dawn, is unlikely to become unruffled and resolved any time soon, and meantime it is possible to argue, in this post-post-modern age, an age of voter rage, that political opinion trumps taste anyway. We like what we say is art. And what we say is art is what likes us.

Simple Minds - the Scottish band founded around 1977 with the pale faces and beautiful cheekbones, and perfect indie hair cuts - comes from a time before that - from a Glasgow of poverty and working-class socialism, and religiosity, in a pre-Internet time when the heights of modernity were signalled by Kraftwerk, large synthesisers, and dancing like Bowie at 3 am in a Berlin club.

To say that early Simple Minds was mannered is like accusing Joyce of being experimental. Doh. The band sought to merge the icy innovations of German music with British and American pioneers of glam and proto-punk, like Iggy Pop; their heroes were contrived,…


Wheeler Light for 'Life Jacket'.

The runner-up is: Daniel Duffy - 'President Returns To New York For Brief First Visit'

Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Life Jacket

summer camp shirtsI couldn’t fit in then
are half my size nowI wanted to wear
smaller and smallerarticles of clothing
I shrunk to the sizethat disappeared

of an afterthoughtin a sinking ship body
too buoyant to sinktoo waterlogged for land
I becamea dot of sand


With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.