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Guest Review: Spurrier On Pugh

Frances Spurrier reviews
by Sheenagh Pugh

Not many reviews of a 'Selected' would involve googling the execution of Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte but I found myself doing  exactly that when reading through Sheenagh Pugh's Later Selected Poems.  Owing to the omnipotent and unquestionable (!) Wikipedia I was able to enlighten myself that Katte was a army officer in Prussia , living from 1704-1730.  He was executed after it was discovered by King Frederick William of Prussia that Katte was plotting to help the King's son to escape from Prussia to Britain.   The poem's narrative is told from the point of view of five different characters who witnessed the events. 

                        Well would you credit
a crown prince planning to skip the country?

It is perfectly possible to understand the sequence without any external referencing,  but I was so drawn into the happenings, that I felt I needed to know more about the historical context and learned something in the process, particularly that l8th century Prussia wasn't always a very nice place to live.  And it wasn't difficult to die young.  

In this volume, Seren brings together a wide range of poetry from five of Pugh's previous collections: Sing for the Taxman (1993) Id's Hospit (1997) Stonelight (1999)The Beautiful Lie (2002) The Movement of Bodies  (2005).  Straight talking and accessible - these poems are unputdownable  - a word more likely to be heard in connection with the latest spy thriller than a volume of poetry, and yet it is appropriate.    

The sort of territory which would send other writers scurrying for cover seems to present itself to Pugh rather as K2 presents itself to the climber, a challenge which is there to be overcome.  She is a keen observer of life but also of the inevitability of its end for all of us, and is fearless in the face of subjects such as Dachau, Lockerbie and Aberfan.  In the poem 'Lockerbie Butter', the lines "A plane, miles above, is blow apart, gouges a burning crater where, just lately, folk were going about their lives, seeing to some daily matter" somewhat redolent of Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts'.

As a Jew who grew up  in the shadow - both physically and metaphorically - of Aberfan,  I am usually quick to turn the page from attempted treatments of such matters in verse, but  it is difficult to argue with lines like this:  "...the flattened grass rises in their path/and it grows from bones and grief and courage:/and agony the dead are in each blade/and they are not diminished...in its unfailing greenness..."

Many of the poems are quite dark, alleviated with patches of wry wit.  As in the voice of  the bishop's clerk in 'The Woodcarver of Stendal', expressing determination that the bishop will have carvings of all Twelve apostles, please,  including Judas.   "Judas? You want Judas? Look, nobody wants Judas"/  "We've paid for a full set of apostles, lad, and we're avin twelve."

 Sometimes lyrical, often packing a punch (literally in the case of 'Captain Roberts Goes Looting') : "It's best when they surrender/No time wasted on violence, just a few swift kicks/ to the officers' groins, for luck."

Pugh shares with Carol Ann Duffy a genius for deceptively simple poetry so that the handling of technique, of metre, rhyme and half rhyme, passes almost unnoticed.   For example, from the unlikely titled 'Best Jesus in Show' a poem about competing evangelists at a country show,

All we had to go on was Malcolm
who's the hairy sort with sandals
and this other bloke, who's a suit
and probably works in a call centre.
They're no more alike than a Limousin
and a Friesian, but somehow one of them
has to end up as Best Jesus in Show,
with the other as reserve Champion. 

The poet ranges amongst her characters, finding and deftly expressing the huge variety of voice and subject matter that is out there in the world waiting for poetic treatment.  Within a couple of pages she can move from a keen-eyed view of some particularly ludicrous piece of human vanity to a poignant tribute to the great physicist Isaac Newton  ('The Movement of Bodies') - "Legend will say he died a virgin/and never saw the sea."  Then another poem will deal with the vacuousness of the American Dream encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence: " But he only said/you had a right to chase it:/he never mentioned/ catching it up./Like that coyote,/forever in pursuit/of the road runner."  ('The Pursuit of Happiness')

Originally from Wales, but now living in the Shetlands, Pugh shares with George Mackay Brown a love of the isles.  Brown's influence peeps through some of the earlier poems in mist, mountain and peat-burn.

The Marshland is left
behind, and the brown peat-burns.
You are higher here than snipe
or pipit, higher than butterwort...

('Muckle Flugga')

At the heart of these poems lies a sympathy with the difficult and exposed nature of being., of the inevitability of death and the elegiac beauty to be found in the moment.    If I could have wished for anything more from the 'Selected' it might have been the inclusion one or two slightly less mournful works, but the clarity and compassion in these poems makes this a volume to be turned to again and again. 

Frances Spurrier, originally from Wales, lives in London.  A former charity consultant, she is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University, and widely-published poet.
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