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Guest Review: Naomi on Fyfe and Shuttle

Understudies: New & Selected Poems
&
Sandgrain and Hourglass

If Understudies were two people, she’d be wearing a floral 50s frock and he’d be wearing a gabardine trench-coat. Both would smoke. She might have a Wyoming or Irish accent, he’d be Austrian or German. If I’ve conjured a film set, this is intentional. Anne-Marie Fyfe’s poems both reference cinema and – more importantly – are crammed with scanning shots, giving the reader both close-ups and a wider lens. Fyfe’s poems move back and forth in time and continent, from Britain and Ireland through central Europe to North America and beyond.

Understudies opens with a generous selection of new poems, including the filmic ‘Backlit Days’: ‘a woman knits in black and white/shaping a collar in flashback’; a fitting and highly moving homage to Elizabeth Bishop with ‘The Filling Station’; the tidal ‘Meteorology’, in which: ‘a dolls’/found voice-box floats, released, to the low horizon’; and from my favourite poem of the collection, ‘Ballad of the Corner Café’:

                                                ‘Now
the last pegboard’s chrome hooks
lie on the faded window display’s
‘fifties holly-paper; a suffocating
wasp’s nest frets in the gusts
from a broken scullery pane;
a white rocking horse shivers in the yard.’

Poems from Fyfe’s three collections, Late Crossing (1999), Tickets from a Blank Window (2002) and The Ghost Twin (2005) constitute the second half of the book. Again, the selections are generous and I was interested to see how this poet’s work has developed since her earliest publication. While I’ve no quibbles with her first collection, for my taste, Fyfe’s poetry has continued to build in its range and depth over time. I rated a good number of poems in her last two collections, particularly from The Ghost Twin, including the Academi Prize Winner ‘Curacao Dusk’, and ‘Novgorod Sidings’, which was commended in the National Poetry Competition. Yet, for my money, many of the outstanding poems in Understudies are to be found among Fyfe’s most recent poetry, especially in her take on small (and big) town North America, which are delivered with a lingering shot of Noir.

Penelope Shuttle’s Sandgrain and Hourglass is a restless, wide-ranging book, full of wonderful, slightly surreal imagery. Consider, if you will, ‘London, Pregnant’: ‘every child/named in gratitude/for the passing tourist/pressed/into unexpected/spontaneous midwifery.’ Another favourite is ‘The Childhood of Snow’, in which the narrator:

‘visits restless lakes,
thoughtful mountains,’ [...]

‘flies round the earth five times,
like a swift, vanishing
into her own delight.’

Talking of delight, there’s often a toughness to Shuttle’s writing that is engaging. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Moon and Sea’:

‘She comes at her full
with a scorpion in her hand,
a knife at her breast, a price on her
            head, […]

arrives with her bibles that never speak of God,
            with her bitch unicorn,’ […].

This toughness complements (and occasionally contrasts with) the raw substance of grief (the main theme of Shuttle’s last collection, Redgrove’s Wife). Many of the grieving poems in Sandgrain and Hourglass are as fresh and surprising as they are moving, as in the (rather witty) ‘I Think It Will Happen Like This’, or the title poem, which opens: ‘Your summer wishes me well./My sunset rushes off without a word.’

In this new collection, Shuttle frequently takes on sorrow, even personifies it. With her celebrated verve, she calls on sorrow to ‘fend for herself’ (‘Sorrow at last’), or decides when sorrow may call; ‘my dealings with tears/have rules nowadays’ (‘In the Tate’). Sandgrain and Hourglass is ultimately an uplifting, highly-charged collection.


Katrina Naomi’s first full collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake was shortlisted for the 2010 London New Poetry Award.  She reviews regularly for Eyewear.
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