Anna Kirk reviews
by Gill Learner
Gill Learner’s head holds a vast imagination, yet her feet are grounded firmly in earth. Her first collection, The Agister’s Experiment, is coloured with myths, legends, Bible stories and the supernatural. However, these poems are rooted in people, in labour and in the land. A number of her poems are prefixed as being ‘for’ particular individuals, people Learner knows. Her poems are about humanity; how we experience nature and the world we now inhabit. The whole collection is dedicated to the memory of her parents, and a sense of looking back and valuing things past is prevalent throughout. As she writes in ‘The descent from Mount Olympus’: “Let’s begin in the time of cherishing”.
Her father was evidently a great influence on her, a man who carried “the Daily Worker tucked inside his coat” (‘My father sees red’) whilst also reverently remembered as a father who “would have honoured / the artists’ genius if not their god” (‘Through and Through’). He admires the workmanship and beauty of churches; his sense of the divine lies in honest reaction to what humanity can create. She describes “a nave unholy with welders, masons, scaffolders” in ‘How to create a cathedral’, yet it is these skilled craftsmen who construct this holy place of awe. Craft and hard graft are highly prized talents, and Learner plies her own craft in layering stories and creating her own lasting monuments through language:
…my shoulders tingle
to the dot-year chip and scrape of chisels,
mortar-slap, levelling knock of trowels.
A poem, after all, is etymologically ‘something created’. In the title poem, ‘The Agister’s Experiment’, the myth and magic that so many of Learner’s poems embody are handled with a mechanistic touch. A note at the beginning of the collection tells us that agisters are officials in the New Forest that are responsible for the roaming livestock. Learner absorbs this earthy role and takes it into mystical territories, whilst retaining a sense of mechanical labour: “both animals were / sparking on all cylinders”. Nature and man-made machinery are linguistically working in tandem. The voice of the poem is that of the agister, who crouches and watches the two animals mate, hoping that “at last I’ve bred a unicorn”. Learner is fond of compound words and kennings, combining two different things to form something new and original. As kennings abound in Old English works this also gives a pronounced archaic tone to some of her poetry, which compliments the spirit of her subject matter. Although there may be “only thumbs up or a V-sign at the past” (‘A sense of the river’), this is not so much an aggressive gesture, more one of regret. Landscapes have changed and, as she writes in ‘Mapped/Unmapped’, there are now wires that are “tying the land and charged / with energies man can no longer understand”.
Despite a lack of aggression, I think there is a kindling anger present in Learner’s work. Water and fire are recurring motifs, and it is the fire that often wins out. In ‘The craft’ a carpenter’s mother dies and she is placed in “a simple container” crafted by her son. Four women then carry “their grandma, / not to the sea but the fire”. This image evokes tales of old, conjuring a world of warriors, community and workmen that have now all but burnt away. Learner ignites them, makes these lost things blaze on the page. She also applies a powerful turn of phrase to the future, which she accepts she can only question, but this is done with bravado, as in the conclusion to ‘Beginning’:
And can we hope,
one day to see a woman
Primate of all England
or even Pope?
There is a playful humour present, along with a balanced, measured phrasing, yet the repetition of the hard ‘p’ spurs these lines on with a punching strength, adding force to her vision of successful women in a time to come. This is what I mean by fire in her writing. Life is fire, and we will all burn up eventually. She wants to remember life, to make stories and people known, to honour what we can see, hear, feel, before they are all lost to us: “Please, before we burn, tell me about rain” (‘About the olden days’).
What we hear in Learner’s poetry is not only the content of the stories she tells us, but the music of the words. She is a lover of music, and several of the poems are inspired by particular musicians and composers. However, musical terms and modes of expression chime throughout the whole collection. Singing, clatters of castanets, and “baritone words” (‘Beginning notes’) create a rich soundscape, and the artful ‘De capo’ is a string of known lyrics skilfully manipulated into rhythmic coherency. In the final poem, ‘Quartet for the end of time’ about the French composer Olivier Messiaen, Learner writes that he “shaped hope in sharps and semiquavers; / shared his vision”. She is sharing hers, conjuring images with music and myth, and all underscored with robust authenticity. It is not the case with Learner that “Most words are lost but melodies bounce between the ears” as is claimed in ‘De capo’. She has honed her craft so that she retains both lasting words and those bouncing melodies that linger. This collection proves that her poetry is now paper, thus history, whilst also valuing an oral tradition that gives poetry an undying intangible presence:
Paper returns to earth or burns to feathers on the air.
It’s history and power.
There is history and power between the pages of The Agister’s Experiment, but it is never weighty or laboured. Learner has a genuine enjoyment of storytelling, patterns and language, and this is why the words trip off the tongue, and why I turn the pages wanting more.
Anna Kirk lives and works in London, and is currently studying for an MA in Poetry at Royal Holloway.