Maria Taylor reviews
She Inserts the Key
by Marianne Burton
In her debut collection, She Inserts the Key, Marianne Burton explores an extensive range of theme and subject matter, from the urbane to the surreal. Despite the varied content her style rarely wavers from writing which is thoughtfully constructed. Elizabeth Jennings once wrote ‘only one thing must be cast out and that is the vague,’ and Burton’s poems are often full of concrete images and experiences, of things which can be pinned down and described – such as a sparrowhawk caught by thorns while pursuing its prey ‘pinned wide open for our inspection’:
For fifteen seconds it lay crucified –
wings museum-fixed, spread eagle by thorns –
as we watched our exhibit twist against
its pivot, its spine pull against the pinioning
The book features a series of poems appearing under a re-occuring title of ‘Meditations on the Hours.’ These are interspersed throughout the book and they allow the collection to cohere very well.
Not only do Burton’s poems take us around the clock but they also take us on a journey of experience. They show us life in its many different aspects, from the early morning regrets of ‘lovers lying in strange beds,’ to mothers giving night-feeds to babies described as ‘warm-lipped fishes,’ and to gangster wannabees stealing from parked cars in the afternoon.
One of the most striking features in Burton’s work is her eye for the extraordinary. In one of the earlier poems in the book, ‘The Woman Who Turned to Soap,’ Burton gives a voice to a deceased woman. The subject of this poem is a woman who bemoaned her obesity in life, but who in death cherishes her decomposing and therefore thinning frame. Death offers a new found independence from the demands of existence: ‘All my life I was dutiful.’ She now has an opportunity to escape and meld with nature, to experience ‘fusion with the sea’ and ‘to lick clean the toes of pink-footed petrels.’ The saponification of the body after death may sound fairly disturbing and perhaps not the most obvious subject matter for a poem, but Burton manages to secure a measured and even tone that makes decomposition a more elegant process:
I shall choose my own colouring,
a delicate raspeberry ripple, sucrose red,
and my own perfume, from orris and anise
What I like about this is the flavouring and perfume set against the background of death and rot. It’s not the ‘surprise’ aspect that appeals, more the luxuriance of the imagery which satisfies. 'Luxurious’ is probably a good adjective for Burton’s style, especially in terms of how she applies a sense of luxury to mundane situations and characters. Burton’s poems make the best out of normality. A man may be ordinary, but his handwriting may suggest exquisite things, as is shown in ‘For a Plain Man’: ‘Your letters clasp hands to dance galliards / throw each other through the air…’ Even ‘plain’ men can harbor secretive and delicious ambitions revealed through ‘rococo scripts’ and a hidden taste for the decadent to ‘spite’ his own school teachers. The reality is that something of the overlooked, ‘tight-lipped’ child who wears ‘cheap clothes’ still persists into adulthood, haunting the grown man who is now ‘important.’ These insights into personal insecurity stay with the reader. Here the images are powerful and memorable enough to make a mark.
Burton also explores the need for independence and how individuals react against daily drudgery. She reflects on work and routine and her characters often seek escapism. The tone is sometimes lighter than expected and humorous: ‘By 2 o’clock evolution is in decline / By 3:30pm we resemble the sloth’ (‘Noon: Liverpool Street: The Bank of Desks’). Elsewhere a naked man irons in Camden, snatching a few quiet moments before his working day begins. The poet becomes the voyeur, noticing how his hands move as if he ‘were making love’ to ‘an unseen body. ’ Burton makes even mundane actions seem more alluring.
The poems possess a filmic appeal which makes them feel as if they are being directed and the images are carefully controlled:
Street lights and little moon. Our shoes
Echo on the cobbles as old Lille sleeps.
Ducks ruffle on the steps by the city pond.
(1am: Lille; Night Walk with Falling Television)
The atmosphere which has been studiously established is then violently broken. A television, ‘eighties weight,’ is thrown out of a window and ensuing wreckage showers the walkers’ path in ‘glass powder’ and ‘plastic splinters.’ A reader can almost hear the crash on the cobbles.
She Inserts the Key is an impressive first collection. I had come across many of the poems previously in various publications and I didn’t expect to be disappointed. I will be very interested to see where Burton goes next in her poetry. Midway through the collection I noticed some of the poems seemed a little more vulnerable than their more confident predecessors and focused on personal relationships between mothers and daughters. I liked this varied range of experience throughout the book. Burton is a strong poet who articulates and explores the vagaries of existence in a way which makes us recognise something in ourselves.
Maria Taylor lives in Leicestershire and is Cypriot in origin. Her poetry has been published in a variety of publications including ‘The Rialto,’ ‘Iota,’ ‘Agenda’ and ‘The North.’ Her first collection Melanchrini was published by Nine Arches Press and has been shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize, 2013.