Guest Review: Mayhew On Rees-Jones

Jessica Mayhew reviews
Burying The Wren*
by Deryn Rees-Jones

*shortlisted today for the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize

Rees-Jones prefaces her collection with a quote from the Roethke poem ‘In a Dark Time:’ “In a dark time, the eye begins to see/ I meet my shadow in the deepening shade.” In Burying the Wren, the eye does indeed begin to see, observing the minutiae in the hugeness of grief, to the “pointillist’s dream” in a field of poppies. This first poem opens up the poet’s close gaze:

...where a seed
might sing, imagining a life
pushed into form, pure colour.”
(Three Glances at a Field of Poppies)

This poem reveals an impressionistic view of a poppy, effectively using the interplay of dark and colour. However, this third glance also unpacks the creative act, moving from imagination to form. This idea flows through the collection; in ‘A Scattering,’ we are presented with a moment in time, the scattering of the poet’s husband’s ashes. The children are suspended in nursery rhyme-like poses at odds with the situation:

The rain has stopped   
and our daughter dances.
Where is our son?
Way up high on his great-uncle’s shoulders.
(A Scattering)

Rees-Jones is a poet very aware of time. In ‘A Scattering,’ she adeptly presents a single moment in time, fading to, “the mist like breath on the landscape’s glass.” This masterful handling of time and space reoccurs in ‘Hallucigenia,’ which is explained in the notes as an extinct genus of animal, named for it’s dream-like, hallucinogenic quality. The poem opens with the line, “The room where I imagine you, my eyes unlocked,” immediately establishing a textual space for the lovers. However, in this room, they exist in “our stanza out of time.” This is a poem self-conscious of its own creation. It is aware that words encase these living bodies and leave a fossil, in which the speaker’s mouth:

is emptied into yours, becomes a different silence
from the first, in commas, dashes and full stops.

Rees-Jones takes inspiration for her dramatic ‘Dogwoman’ sequence from the works of the artist Paula Rego. Rego’s works show women in various dog-like positions, such as grooming and howling. However, these are images of power, juxtaposing the wild and domestic. Roethke’s rhythms echo from the preface: 

hellhound, dog shaking, hare-bound; dog in the wind, sky bound.
(Once, attendant in my blue dress, I hadn’t the words to call you back.)

Here, the internal rhyme enforces the poet’s relentless grief. The sudden prosaic clarity of the second line emphasises the psychic transformation of bereavement, whilst providing the reader with a thunder-struck image of the death scene. These interjections prevent the poem from drifting into the abstract.

Perhaps inevitably for a collection largely inspired by grief, I was reminded of Douglas Dunn’s Elegies on several occasions, particularly in ‘A Dream of Constellations:’

the navigated darkness of our life,
this telling and untelling of the world...
(‘A Dream of Constellations’)

Rees-Jones beautifully captures the time when, “the months that were left could be held in our hands,” almost transforming the scene into myth.

Burying the Wren is an accomplished collection, its emotive centre never allowed to drift clear of time and space. The wren motif is used well. In ‘Burying the Wren,’ body and bird merge, “soft as the hairs behind your ears...the fluttering breast you longed to touch.” The final poem of the same name concludes the collection with the wren as an image of redemption:

Here, where a wren sings, flirty in the alder,
in the long hot days of May,

when you are three years gone.
(‘Burying the Wren’)

Jessica Mayhew reviews regularly for Eyewear.


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