Carcanet Press 2016, 60 pp., £9.99
Reviewed by Lesley Saunders
An admirer of Jane Draycott’s poetry since we first met a quarter of a century ago, I’ve studied her existing work (in Prince Rupert’s Drop, OUP 1999, The Night Tree, Carcanet 2004, and Over, Carcanet 2009) minutely and persistently not only for the abiding pleasure of doing so but also because of the envy I continue to feel for her glorious gifts of music and meaning-making, neither one predominant but in perfect unison productive of profound and moving work. How does she do it? is my perennial question.
Part of her work’s power derives, I’ve come to think, from the practice of addressing important and/or difficult matters somewhat obliquely, on the grounds that such things are often ‘best seen by looking away’ (from ‘How He Knew He Was Turning to Glass’, The Night Tree) – the analogy being with the way we focus our view of a faint star by looking slightly to one side of it. This ‘averted vision’, a well-known procedure in astronomy, has been developed by Draycott into a writerly technique that supports a whole art of perception. This is no mere stylistic device: Draycott’s best poems are exemplars of psychologically nuanced, ethically subtle and often deeply tender engagements with the world.
This characteristic can be immediately appreciated in poems composed in homage to or memory of someone, which enact a strong sense of etiquette and decorum – no confidences betrayed, no intrusive empathising – whilst managing to convey something unexpected that has the ring of truthfulness. Five poems in this new collection are dedicated to particular people: ‘Atlas’ (written for H & S), ‘At Remenham’ (written for Matt & Louise), ‘Meeting Margaret’, (written i.m. P.B.D.), ‘Rosa “Madame A. Meilland” (Peace)’ (written for Peter Scupham, who has a keen interest in gardens), ‘Westernays’ (written for Bernard – possibly O’Donoghue, with whom Draycott has collaborated over many years).
Each of these poems commemorates a delicate and often, for the reader, unknowable connection with the person concerned, some shared but unnamed event or circumstance that is the ground in which the poem is rooted; what we are given in the poem itself is the foliage or flower that could not have been predicted. And in this manner the poem succeeds in being both a personal communication on which we are eavesdropping and a more general address in which we feel included – the poem for Peter Scupham, for example, begins with the second person pronoun, so richly ambiguous in this context: ‘You could in the last of daylight cultivate a rose / and name it for your mother.’ The opening of the second stanza looks similar – ‘You could watch the child by the railway who knows / all there is to know about weeds and fire…’ – but by this time that ‘you’ surely extends far beyond the singular and specific. The poem invites us to contrast the garden rose, symbol of civilisation and in this particular case the cultivar re-named Peace after the end of WWII, with the ‘spreading weed’ of war and fear of war. But this short (twelve line) poem accomplishes much more than that. Embedded in it, for instance, is the fact that the rose was cultivated in the years before the war by the French breeder F. Meilland, who indeed named it after his mother. Subsequently, foreseeing the invasion of France, he sent cuttings to colleagues in other countries to ensure its survival – hence, in the first stanza, ‘A ship in the bay / might sail with it.’ With similar economy, the poem goes on, ‘On the dockside gantry and willow / could bow their heads.’ – a witty and poignant image that the reader might nonetheless almost disregard in the onward movement of the stanza to: ‘But no known prayer or herb / can prevent the coming night’s invasion…’.
So – despite the insistent dynamic of the poem, the ship, the invasion, the railway – let’s linger over the sentence a moment or two longer: ‘gantry’, with its mechanical associations, prepares the way for the ‘railway’ and then the ‘bayonets and flaming spires’ of the second stanza; these two also pick up, aurally as well as imagistically, the ‘fire’ that’s ‘flowering’ at the close of the first stanza. ‘Willow’, presumably a willow-tree at that point in the poem, has in the very next line seeded, through word association, the image of rosebay willowherb, commonly known as fireweed because of its tendency to grow on waste ground and burnt land; which then blossoms fully in the second stanza into the ‘the new wild tribe’ that witnesses from the bank the train in the night, the train of darkness and heat and terror. We can hardly avoid feeling the implied horror of that final image – even though, or no doubt precisely because, none of the horror is actually described.
This powerful effect, observable time and again throughout her work, is possible not only because of Draycott’s immensely skilful concision of imagery and mastery of music but also because of her poetic tact – she never presumes to tell us what we already know, but instead invites us to activate our knowledge in the service of a richly associative and multi-layered understanding. ‘The Shower Scene’ is virtuosic in this respect – the title gives us everything we need by way of context/pretext for what follows, so that the poem can be wholly devoted to a meditative riff on Marion Crane’s backstory (her ‘dusty travelling clothes’) and thus provide a gently ironic counterpoint, all ‘eglantine and roses on the walls’, to the sensational violence of the film.
Or take the poem that caught my eye as I was first leafing through, ‘Where Is Your Banksman?’, whose title made me gasp with delight: if you travel by rail into Paddington mainline station now or in the near future you’ll go past the Crossrail works, where a large sign bearing that legend has presumably puzzled thousands of other passengers. If you want a prosaic explanation, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banksman; otherwise, revel in the idea of the person in question ‘missing again, // gone hang-gliding, abseiling from skyscrapers, / soaring from the cliff at the top of the world, / captain marvellous…’ while ‘You wait in the cab of the excavator’; and then admire how the final stanza effortlessly mutates into a universal existential doubt:
The earth lies opened-up in front of you, clay and stone.
Tomorrow he’ll return like Marco Polo to give
the world detailed account of all the lands he’s seen
invisible to you. How much of it can you believe?
And this example reveals another crucial feature of Draycott’s poetry: the intensity of its intelligence. This must be partly due to the conciseness and economy I noted earlier, the capacity of the words to carry so much freight because of the way she makes them relate to each other, etymologically and musically, as well as to the subject in hand. But there’s something else as well – to use the kind of image that occurs from time to time in Draycott’s poems, one feels there’s very often an undercurrent, some kind of subaqueous disturbance below the shimmering surface like a shadowy fish swimming silently against the stream… This contra-flow, so to speak, imparts a distinctive and typical tension that mitigates any potential for such beautifully-wrought work to be simply that.
I still can’t quite fathom how she does it, but I suspect exactitude – a lexical and metrical surefootedness – accounts for a great deal; in Draycott’s hands, recurrent tropes of the sea, of snow and ice, of the dream, of the house empty or remembered, of being lost, are not so much metaphorical as analogical – the implicit comparison is precisely chosen and perfectly articulated, neither a warmed-over cliché nor a wild stab at novelty. Thus ‘The Winter House’, a carol, takes stock images from the genre and turns them into a series of brief-lived vignettes that convey the kind of bittersweet significance found in beloved predecessors like ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.
At the heart of this varied and entrancing collection sits the title poem, Draycott’s five-part response to another poem, Martinus Nijhoff’s 1930s modernist narrative ‘Awater’. There isn’t space here to do full justice to this hommage, and readers should avail themselves of Draycott’s introduction to the original, which furnishes several clues to her own attraction to, and interpretation, of it: http://poetrysociety.org.uk/publications-section/poetry-news/after-awater-jane-draycott-joins-the-trail/ (and do catch the wonderfully evocative audio piece at https://soundcloud.com/poetrysociety/after-awater-jane-draycott). ‘The Occupant’ – a word which to my ears has associations with psychic possession as well as with tenancy and impermanence – is an inspired epithet for the person being pursued fruitlessly by the poet; at any moment the creature, this alter ego, doppelgänger, fetch, may turn the tables and hunt the poet. Who in the end even seems to desire such a conclusion, at least as I read these half-dozen closing lines:
I’ll wait until the dogs bark five more times
and five more cars – our ministers, scientists,
generals – roll down the palace drive,
then ride out to the dunes and find you
lying in the fine long grasses, fine for miles.
The restless grasses, restless, moving, fine.
Near the end of Draycott’s article she writes:
Everyone has their own ‘Awater’ reading: it’s a poem about the imagination, the unconscious mind, about bereavement, about the existential hollow in the wake of the First World War, about Eliot, about religion and the old world, about the future. But who are the characters writers follow into the night, deliberately keeping their distance, piggy-backing on their energy, drawing on their power?
It’s a question this reader most wants to ask about ‘The Occupant’, both the poem and the book. The book’s front cover shows a detail from Vuillard’s painting La Porte Entrebâillée, The Half-Open Door, in which a rather indeterminate human figure seems to be peering out of a highly ornamented background – the hallucination shimmers, slightly eerie and unresolvable.