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Guest Review: Wong On Horovitz

Jennifer Wong reviews
Collected Poems
by Frances Horovitz

The inner eye

Described by Anne Stevenson as having a voice ‘’not of the ‘age’ but of the earth’’, Frances Horovitz’s poems are imbued with honesty and clarity. In this new collection by Bloodaxe edited by poet Roger Garfitt, whom she married shortly before she died of cancer in 1983, one finds an effortless grace in her poems. Quiet, romantic and restless, they are dark delvings of the mind that portray a sentient, evocative natural world: ‘the pellucid skin of light’; ‘angles and arabesques of darkness’ in the wood; ‘the unquiet reeds’.

Her poetry captures not just beauty but meaning in places and people. Highly visual, imaginative and mostly personal, her poems question one’s place and the natural order of the world. In ‘Irthing Valley’, one of the poems from Snow Light, Water Light (1983), Horovitz writes:

Each stone in its place

can a star be lost
or a stone? (p.98)

Horovitz was plagued by illness in prime years – it is unsurprising to find in her work a fear of losing and the yearning for rest. In ‘Irthing Valley’, there is a noticeable trace of weariness and foreboding in the image of the bending wind:

the wind lays itself down
at dusk
a fine cloth over the stones’ (p.98)

Her androgynous and foreboding poetic voice expresses power and mystery.  Living creatures, landscapes, places are vested with poignant emotions and history. For over a decade, the poet lived in the remote part of the Cotswolds, and much of her work draws on the closeness with nature.  In ‘Night-piece’, one finds a powerful, symbolic nightscape fused with myth, which recalls Yeats’s romanticism and Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry:

the moon is on her back again
night cannot console her thin belly
she ravens shadow
my hand a cupped moth clinging
in the folded dark our breath rises
a grey bird among pines                     (p.59)

Beautifully conjured and balanced, landscapes featured in Horovitz’s poems are hidden with ambivalent meanings and signs of danger. In ‘August Full Moon’, moon is described as a ‘gorged moon’, and the pain that connects mother and child is so poignantly expressed in the line ‘all night I toss under your knives / fields shine with your redness’ (p.56). Her keen eye and economy of language are most evident in her later poems collected under Voices Returning. Her pared-down, impressionistic description of places has an almost impersonal quality to it, as if there is something insufferable about the truth.

While her nature poems are much loved, it is her poems on family and motherhood that arrest me most. In one of her last poems ‘Letter to My Son’, a dying mother’s nostalgia for parenthood is expressed in a romantic yet anguished voice, and in such elegiac verse: the child’s ‘cosmic dance’ in her womb twelve years ago, the intimate and surprising metaphor of a ‘rare orchid’ to describe the genitals of a child, contrasting with the entrapments of ‘white and sterile room’ and her ‘racked and torn’ body.

Horovitz adheres to a disciplined, terse use of form, and sometimes combines it with a foreign sense of rhythm. For example, in the poem ‘January’, the poet paints a stark winter scene where all is in hibernation, ending it with a densely packed tercet that recalls haikus: ‘Far up / rooks, crows / flail home.’ (p.90) At times, however, the oriental overtone becomes too formulaic and creates a strange closure. 

In ‘Visit to the British Museum’, taken from Water Over Stone (1980), there is a startling, refreshing juxtaposition of imagery to connect personal and public history: the clock-maker’s ‘sleight of mind and hand’ leads to the personal experience of the loss of time, the ‘seepage of our lives’, while she admires the etchings of history on the Assyrian bas-relief.

This collection traces the development of a subdued, steady poetic voice. The re-sequenced poems in chronology, together with the editor’s omissions of poems of ‘the weaker imaginative impulse’ and unfinished poems, renew understanding towards her work (p12). The CD that accompanies the collection includes her readings and an interview of the poet with Jenny Cuffe, in which Horovitz talks about her consciousness towards the sound of poetry, her journey as a writer, a lifelong fascination with stones and her tribute to Yeats, which offer a useful annotation to this new edition. (p.110)

Jennifer Wong was born in Hong Kong, China. Her first collection, Summer Cicadas, was published by Chameleon Press in 2006. Her poems have been published in journals including Frogmore Papers, Orbis, Warwick Review, TATE ETC and others. Her second poetry collection is due to be published by Salmon Poetry in 2013. 
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