Jacqueline Saphra reviews
by Helen Oswald
Death, that often visited subject of poets, stalks the pages of Helen Oswald’s Forward Prize nominated ‘Learning Gravity’. This is a collection that explicitly attempts to get to grips with the subject of loss, as signalled at the front of the book with a dedication to Oswald’s brother, who died in 1992.
In fact if any poem in the collection could be said to sum up its overall thrust, it could be the sonnet, ‘Not Wanting to Write about Truffles’ which describes the imagined process of terriers looking for truffles, and ends touchingly and with an echo of Eliot:
‘Their value is not scarcity but in that saving,
exhuming delicacies from dead ground.
Try as I may, I still go down there with the hope of it.'
And ‘down there’ is exactly where many of the poems go. The subject of death and mortality becomes - to borrow the poet's metaphor - the book’s centre of gravity, pulling much of the material in towards it. The theme is sometimes expressed obliquely, but often confronted head on. Unflinchingly, these poems examine their theme minutely from many angles, so that the act of writing seems to take on a redemptive quality. In the title sequence, ‘Learning Gravity’, which reads as a series of elegies, lines like ‘Death stops all machinery.’ are balanced with the idea that the dead never leave us:
‘You sit patiently with me, waiting
to be given back your shape
in some strange way,
don’t you think?’
By writing the poem, Oswald is of course implicitly giving 'shape' to the loved one who has died.
Oswald leans towards the lyric in her poetry and there is some beautifully controlled and arresting imagery. When this works well, it lingers in the mind: in ‘One Day on the Moon’, she writes, she ‘buried/my face in the hinge of my father’s knee’ and in ‘Leaving the City’ she refers to coming home as ‘coming back down through seasick wheat’. In ‘The Melt’, there is a vivid evocation of the appearance of a thaw in a snow-covered city:
‘The bared spines of roof ridges, cars’ exoskeletons
anaesthetised in ice, reawakening. Everywhere
Sometimes, though, it's as if the poet's ability to come up with powerful metaphors slightly runs away with her. In ‘Full tilt’, describing a childhood bicycle ride – I assume with her brother - she writes: ‘you sliced across a major road/like scissors through ribbon’ which is harder to visualise; difficult in my mind at least, to connect a bicycle with a pair of scissors. Later, in the same poem, which is, after all, only twelve lines long, Oswald goes on to write:
The handlebars locked horns and joined us at the hip
until we came apart, you and I,
like a book falling open.
So here in the same sentence, we have handlebars locking horns – so vivid - but then immediately the simile of a book falling open, and all this following so soon after the earlier metaphor of a pair of scissors cutting a ribbon. I begin to wonder whether this melee of images is just a little too much to follow. This is a pity, because the central idea being expressed, that of togetherness and separation, is a strong one, and congruent with many of the other poems.
There are a number of loose sonnets in the collection, and a three-sonnet sequence titled 'Allotments' strikes a particularly joyful note in what is, on the whole, a rather sombre book. These three poems celebrate life, love and growth but - like most of Oswald's poems - are not without their dark side: 'Killing us, but killing us softly.' is the ending to the second sonnet in the sequence. But the last one finishes cheerfully with a triumphant and neatly Shakespearean couplet about a rescued chick who
decoded the hieroglyphics of his sky-built DNA,
mastered a frail technology and flapped away.
And again in a slightly happier vein, alongside the many explorations of loss from different angles, there is the tracing of a long distance love affair. In ‘Morning After’, she writes
Romance is a parrot –
I love you, I love you.
It parodies what cannot be put
into words, or cages.
These are carefully built lines – with the lovely sound echo of ‘parrot’ and ‘parodies’ resonating through this stanza in a delightful collusion of sound and sense.
In 'Night Flight', another love poem, this time constructed of tight, fully rhymed couplets, the last two lines are: 'You and I exist in flight/between arrival, departure, delight.'. I'm carried along by this ending because of the poem's Marvellian-style couplet form, but I'm a bit less convinced of the endings of some of the other poems where Oswald does tend to drive home in the closing line or two what is already implicit. In Air Raid, Coventry’, an evocation of her mother's childhood fear of air raids - but more significantly, a different fear she refuses to name - the poem ends rather heavily with ‘Silence/detonates in the space between us’. Similarly, in ‘The Meet’ a poem about hunting, which begins with the fabulous image ‘a clot of pink coats …’ finishes with the single sentence ‘Someone blooded, run to ground’. The word ‘blood’ has hovered so convincingly over the poem it seems a pity to let it land so firmly at the end. But in the haunting poem 'Inventing Zero', where the poet imagines a person coming to grips with the idea of 'nothing' and finding a symbol for it, Oswald closes with a beautifully light touch:
Down by the reeds I see Zudin
laughing and throwing stones
from the bank, oblivious
to the reckoning, the shape
I have given nothing.
I was charmed by a couple of the more quirky and light poems in the book, perhaps because they were juxtaposed with such painful material. In ‘Keeping an Eye’, a poem about identity, the poet describes herself as the sort of person who might be asked to watch someone else’s bag on a train, but suggests that she might just take that person's bag and identity and leave her own skin ‘neatly folded on her seat’. Similarly, 'Second Language’ which describes a brief and startling encounter with a foreign stranger is another poem in the collection that I enjoyed for its sheer brio:
How long have you been here? And,
What have you seen so far?
You, you say, I have seen you.
I found it a relief to encounter the witty conceits of these poems that moved away from the subject of mortality, and I enjoyed their tightness and wry tone. But this is primarily a book infused with powerful feeling, one that moved me: a collection articulated with a naturally lyric voice, poems that repeatedly circle and return to their subjects of love, loss and memory. Here is a poet who is willing to look at difficult subject matter and confront it with a startling clarity of vision and emotional honesty.
Jacqueline Saphra is on the editorial board for Magma Poetry. Her pamphlet Rock'n'Roll Mamma from Flarestack is to be followed next year by a full collection, The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions, supported by the Arts Council of England and published by flipped eye.