Review in Critical Survey Volume 20 (1), Spring 2008
Proof that we were here by Stan Smith, Nottingham Trent University
Pat Corina, Lines North (Soundswrite Press, 2008) ISBN 978-0-9550786-1-3, £5.00
Brian Fewster, Sympathetic Magic (Poor Tom’s Press, 2008) ISBN 978-0-9543-3715-5, £6
Writing poems about writing (or failing to write) poems was already traditional by the time Sir Philip Sidney institutionalised it in his sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella. It’s a lively genre, and usually opens out into much larger questions about the relationship of word to world, life to letters. The title poem of Brian Fewster’s Sympathetic Magic speaks anxiously of having ‘So many things to do. So little time’, in ‘A word-infested world, with no escape / From these parameters that fix its shape’, and yearns for the kind of magical filters, of masks and charms, totems and talismans, that once mediated that world for ‘Our primitive precursors’, though it acknowledges too that such ‘hollow artefacts contrived from spells’, the whole paraphernalia of belief, for which poetry seems to be the modern replacement, really constitute just another inflection of credulity and self-deception.
The uncertain status of poetry in the modern world is a theme of many of the poems in these two volumes, from Pat Corina’s opening ‘How to interrogate a poem’ (not so much a manifesto or do-it-yourself manual as an expression of concern for the human rights of texts subjected, as Catherine Byron shrewdly notes in the book’s blurb, to various form of ‘extraordinary rendition’), to Fewster’s ‘The Rules’, which, developing an analogy with game instructions, concludes, ‘The game continues until the words are exhausted and/or there are no players physically present at the table.’ Both poets are good at finding new analogies for such an odd human activity. Corina’s sestina ‘Mincing words’ proposes that ‘Poetry is like garlic’, and then develops a sustained analogy between making ‘burgers’ and meatballs and making ‘poetryballs’, ‘a lost labour of love’. Fewster’s Larkinesque sonnet ‘The Poet Bequeaths his Germs’ sees poetry as a debilitating infection threatening the reader’s health: ‘Inside the lining of your lungs I’ll creep / And take possession irresistibly.’ His ‘To a Piece of Software’ concludes ‘Let’s face it son, you’re tacky through and through! / I almost wish I hadn’t written you’, that ‘almost’ catching the residual pride, as well as the exasperation, of the parent, poet, programmer at a product which never quite turns out as intended, goes on to have a cussed life of its own.
Fewster’s ‘The Dark Lady’s Reply’ takes direct issue, in the Bard’s own sonnet form, with Shakespeare’s grandiose comparison of poetry to work in brass and stone, while ‘Not Marble…’ compares poetry less to monumental sculpture than to ‘shaping a hedge’. ‘Art’, a taut translation of a famous poem by Gautier, carries as a tailpiece a four-line response, ‘Productivity’, which asks, with a sarcasm that points in two directions at once, instead of labouring in stone ‘Why not do it in plasticine?’ ‘Two Voices’ indicates that in all these poems, writing poetry is, in turn, itself just another analogy for making a life; as does ‘Statues’, which envisages stony figures that come alive from their ‘fixed positions’ only when there’s music playing. ‘Air and Earth’ draws an analogy with setting up a tent in a high wind, but in passing also invokes a proverbial echo in speaking of a ‘poem’s poor pint pot’.
Fewster’s poems often kick against the formal constraints they have set themselves, in a way which suggests all sorts of analogues with life itself. Interestingly, though, it’s those apparently constricting ‘parameters’ which give his poetry its distinctive force: he excels in robust pentameters and tight rhyme schemes, sonnet and villanelle and sestina. At times, inevitably, he pastiches other writers, but he usually also manages to give a personal sardonic twist to his influences. There is a stanza of pure revivified Emily Dickinson at the start and finish of ‘Infestation’: ‘Some days are so besieged with wings / I’ve scarcely taken breath / unbrushed with subtle shadowings / of sex and self and death’; but Auden is a frequent, Empson a spasmodic and Larkin his most constant shadow, as in a poem like ‘Author, Author!’ Given that Fewster performs so well in these formal chains, it is odd to find his ‘Anti-sestina’ complaining about the futility of the genre. The poem handles its self-reflexive protest against its own constraints with exemplary skill, turning the ‘straitjacket’ of form into an implicit allegory for a life. ‘Won’t someone help me? I’m trapped inside a sestina’, it demands, the indignant question ‘What is the point of so much repetition?’ implicitly casting life itself as a perpetual ‘sort of Groundhog Day’. Exasperation, with other people, with one’s own body, with the universe of things itself, the whole bloody shebang, often gives a brittle, bracing edge to the poems in this collection, sharpening their insights. Sometimes it develops into a powerful if ineffectual anger at the way the universe itself is constructed, as for example in those moving elegies for a mother with whom, in a familiar syndrome, he could never really establish rapport (‘Mother and Son’), or for a sister dying after long illness, ‘Three Poems for Jane’, ‘What’s Left’, ‘Heart-Lung Transplant’, with a refrain, ‘Come again / from where you’ve gone…’ that recalls, and refreshes, Louis MacNeice, or ‘Come Back’, with its fraught recognition, after his brother’s death, that ‘grief is late and slow / to grasp or let me go’. Indeed, the theme declared in the title poem is apparent everywhere in the volume: the sense that real sympathy (empathy might be a more appropriate word) between one human being and another is rare and magical and, as with magic, the real thing is hard to come by. Poems such as his ‘Walking on the Glacier’ and ‘Ice Age’ achieve it, though, in the very act of grieving over its absence.
There are several sestinas in both these collections, the products possibly of group exercises set by the lively Leicester Poetry Society in which both writers have participated. (Fewster is one of the editors of Corina’s posthumous volume.) Other poems seem to talk to each other in a way which suggests their origins in a collective theme-setting enterprise. Fewster’s ‘Town Squirrel’, for example, leaps across the textual gap to Corina’s ‘Poise’; his ‘Time, Please’ recalls the kitchen analogies of her ‘Mincing words’; her ‘On stopping by a former mental asylum on a February morning’, while apologising to Robert Frost, also waves at Fewster’s sharp evocation of John Clare in ‘Fragments Overheard at Northampton Asylum’. There are several briskly effective poems in both volumes about that intractable subject for poetry, medical investigation and diagnosis, screening for breast cancer in Corina’s punningly titled ‘Double exposure’, rectal sigmoidoscopy in Fewster’s ’Polyp’, and in both volumes a harrowing confrontation with bereavement, and the imagined reality of personal death. There is real intellectual and imaginative range in Pat Corina’s ‘Sestina: for my feet’, much more than a witty formal exercise, or the honed and moving ‘Journey’, not a word out of place or redundant, a sestina which journeys from the opening question, ‘so much time : how will you fill it all?’ to the anguished query of the penultimate stanza, ‘Where has the time gone?’ and then to the final line in which ‘light gives way to the dark-begetting place of all.’
Corina writes spare, understated poems, her model in some ways the ‘Dry stone waller’ of whom she writes in the poem of that name. Her ‘Family fortunes’ sonnet works discreetly skilful variations on the word ‘landed’ first used to describe her father’s forebears, ironically, as ‘landed folk’– that is, ‘landed from an Irish packet boat’, who ‘landed on their feet’, whose women got ‘landed with ten children’, who ‘land a job’, ‘the land they’ve landed up in now their home’. Her imaginative scope extends unfussily from domestic cameos like ‘In praise of rain’ to the vivid twelve-line postscript to Anna Karenina in ‘Nightmare’, the historical remoteness of Thessalonica in 904 AD in ‘The Age of Capricorn’, the vast expanses of ocean in ‘Finistère’ and ‘Ships in the night’ (which takes on Heaney in celebrating the Shipping Forecast’s ‘wild imagined outposts of the north’), and the nearer reaches of space in the Russian space-flights invoked in ‘Taking a spanner into space’. She can pull off nostalgic evocations of lost time which generate their own verbal space, though they recall such elegists of the vanishing moment as Derek Mahon. ‘The lost girls’, for example, ponders pre-war snapshots of her mother and aunts, out for a spin in an Austin Seven, not seeing the war that lies ahead, across the North Sea, which will take their menfolk to the shores of Africa and Asia. The title poem, one of the finest in a distinguished volume, assumes a double voice, recalling Ken Smith’s historical re-enactments in juxtaposing the story of a pregnant working-class woman in Yorkshire in 1878 with verbatim extracts from a letter from her mother in Somerset, the latter’s words adding an unpunctuated pathos to this narrative of a long erased present.
It is characteristic of Corina that, in ‘The representation the people’, it is not politics but art which is seen to be their true representative, converting the citizens of Pisa or Utrecht into ‘unknowing envoys to another time’. Characteristic, too, that she should notice, among the images in the German art gallery, ‘the lad who posed as Judas for a bet / and never lost that haunted look’. For art, whether poetry or painting, makes everyone, in time, into ‘chance-led representatives of an earlier world’. She would like, she says, to take a team of ‘chrononauts’ into the future, a team of ordinary people, hairdresser, software engineer, property developer, refugee, ‘insurance brokers and the dispossessed’,
their faces looking out, witness and evidence,
to represent us all, proof that we were here
Pat Corina died in July 2007. These poems are powerful proof that she was here.