Andrew McMillan reviews
by Alicia Stubbersfield
It’s a rare pleasure to settle down with a book that cuts the crap, cuts the pretention and is smart enough to wear its learning lightly. With Alicia Stubbersfield’s fourth collection you feel immediately in the presence of someone at the top of their game; someone who understands the true power of poetry lies within the confident layering of poetic image with plain, direct, arresting statement. The first poem in the collection, ‘Stone’ ends with the stanza
Stone- not shell. No faraway tide sound,
no ocean-memory or lost sea creature.
Basalt, smooth as someone’s skin.
The opening of the collection underlining that it is a collection concerned with reality rather than fantasy, the realistic rather than the overly-romantic and the human rather than the blatheringly academic. ‘Stone’ appears in the first of the book’s three sections, ‘More Musicians’; which is followed by ‘Marking’ and ‘Influenced’. Undercurrents of medicine, surgery and mortality run under a lot of the poems, in ‘Lazarus’ (“I know that place, waking/ from anaesthetic, still in a dream”) and ‘Frozen’ (“Under the ice/grief’s small creature still quivers its fins”) and one of the most interesting conversations which emerges from the book is the dialogue between such fear and the spirit of ‘freshness’ and of new starts which appears in poems like: ‘Just changing the car’ (“now I’m sitting here, doing a deal/on my own”) although the resolute independent statement is destabilized slightly by the ending: “Sat Nav/ so I know where I’m going”. Such is the strength of this collection, it isn’t a monophonic tract on death or on new starts, it embraces the human condition of having to deal with both at the same time- and everything is honest- a new direction might be embarked upon but the Sat Nav, a machine not a human, might have to be relied upon for navigation.
On a personal level, I’ve always been fascinated by the parts of poems which reach beyond themselves, reach through Poetry (in the proper noun sense of the word) into an arresting plainness which seems to be as honest as it’s possible to be, the most truthful to a reader. Stubbersfield gives us such moments; in ‘My Ex-Mother-in-Law’ (“Home became the smell of old lard”), in ‘The Prescription’ (“Stanley leaps to meet me, his whole body pleased”) , in ‘March’ (“I still think about March 1998/when I lay on the sofa, waiting,/ while the final chemo raced through my veins”). The power in the last quote gaining its strength from its honesty, from its plainness.
Another thing which interests me in poetry is the power of the negative, the depths that the word “not” opens up when considered against what something is. Stubbersfield uses this technique to great effect, particularly in ‘Sunday Morning’ (“One magpie tearing at roadkill/is not necessarily an omen”) and in ‘November’ (“not looking as it melts back to mud”). The latter quote also showing Stubbersfield’s strength of craft- any other poet might have simply ended with a twee “not looking back” but here it is the snow that is melting back to mud; a much subtler metaphor is achieved. Another example of deft handling of metaphor comes at the very end of ‘Yorkshire’ where the line “males showing off what they can do” in relation to the mating calls of Curlews opens out into a statement on war and love- the biggest subjects of all, handled minutely and delicately by Stubbersfield.
The poem ‘Miles Away’ is illuminating into the craft of Stubbersfield; in a witty poem about the pitfalls of internet dating profiles, the poet recalls a moment when a friend “suggests I write poems about them./ A sequence perhaps” but this idea is firmly rejected with the act of swiftly removing the profile. There will be no cheap tricks in the collection, nothing extended beyond its necessary borders, no sequence on internet dating which would have felt false to the true experience. Whilst on the subject of craft it seems pertinent to consider one of the overall abilities of poetry- that of contraction, of distillation. During the book’s second sequence, based around Stubbersfield’s time as an English teacher at secondary schools, the opening of ‘Marking’:
Piles of exercise books next to my chair,
the oily smell of them, the stickiness
of Year 9 pages
captures everything of the angst, the turmoil (both biological and emotional) and the physical manifestations of adolescence. What some poets would labour over suggesting through the journey of an entire poem, Stubbersfield is able to contract and distil into three accomplished lines. The ‘Marking’ section of the book contains some intensely powerful endings to poems, which are built up to perfectly and would be spoilt by quotation (but read ‘Year 7, Period 1, Wednesday’ and ‘Keeping it Back’ to see what I mean). What strikes you on reading this collection is how so much of contemporary poetry uses the end line of a poem to tie itself neatly off in a bow, to close in on itself; these endings seem to do the opposite, they open the poem out further, pull the reader into the white space below and add depth; in the poem ‘Over’, where Stubbersfield recounts having her contraceptive coil removed, the poem ends with the haunting:
[…] it looks fresh,
he says and I feel obscurely pleased
as though I’d kept it nice on purpose.
Rather than closing off the poem that opens it out into other considerations, other thoughts and feels somehow more satisfying than an ending which mutes itself and sews itself up.
What this review hasn’t mentioned yet is the heart of this book, it’s ability to break it, it’s ability to mend it- it’s ability to move it. ‘The Game’ and the poems dealing with familial alcoholism are profoundly moving as is ‘In Need of Some Updating’ which deals with maternal and paternal loss. Such heartbreak is foiled by the celebratory, such as in ‘Valentines Day’ where Stubbersfield is seen “doing something/different with my heart/holding it in my own cupped hands/watching it swell again”. Once again we get not just one or the other, not just heart swell or heartbreak, we get the very human honesty of having to live with both. The titular poem of the collection, which appears in the third section ‘Influence’, could perhaps be read as a summation of the project and craft of Stubbersfield as a poet. The yellow table which was ‘mother’s defiance of post-war monochrome’ is dismantled at the end of the poem
I unscrew four pale-oak legs, the extending flaps
from each end and place the top along the skip side,
yellow Formica facing outwards, still gaudy, still doing it’s best
stripped of all its extras, the legs and the flaps, the table still retains its characteristics, it is still “gaudy, still doing its best”. This collection is offering us poetry with all pretention, all artifice, anything unnecessary stripped away but the poems still retain the qualities which make great poems; human honesty, human frailty, heart-breaking and heart-mending love, deftly handled metaphors and tightly controlled distillation. “This one’s in the story” writes Stubbersfield at the end of ‘Change the buttons…’: this collection is in the human stories it tells, both the poets’ and those people she encountered, stories which might otherwise have been lost, stories which needed to be told, stories which we needed to hear.
‘Above the Roof Terrace’ closes the collection, it returns partly to the concerns of the collection’s first poem, ‘Stone’, considering mortality and an afterlife whilst beginning to slightly embrace a spirituality which the opening poem of the book rejects. The poet has moved during the book. The poet has moved the reader during the book. . This is the kind of honest, direct and beautiful poetry which should come to “inhabit the emptiness of air” puffed out by poets who wear their learning heavily. They would do well to look to these poems, “soaring”, they would do well to “transform into their human selves”; they would do well to learn from Stubbersfield, that it’s “in the story” that true poetry can be found.
Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988. His most recent pamphlets are the moon is a supporting player (2011, Red Squirrel Press) and a new pamphlet-length poem protest of the physical will be published by Red Squirrel Press at the end of 2013. He is a lecturer in Creative Writing and will be teaching two Poetry School courses in Manchester during the summer. He is working on a first collection.