Kate Behrens’s Penumbra reviewed by Tom Phillips
Penumbra by Kate Behrens. £9.99. Two Rivers Press. ISBN: 978-1-909747-46-3
Following its well-received predecessors, 2012’s The Beholder and 2016’s Man with Bombe Alaska (both also from Two Rivers Press), Penumbra is replete with the vivid, sometimes startling imagery, unexpected linguistic shifts and carefully patterned verbal dynamics which prompted Adam Piette to describe Behrens’ second book as ‘a haunting, emotionally fraught and entrancing collection.’ Here, for example, is the concluding poem of the first of the latest book’s five sections in its entirety:
AEROPLANE TRAILS AT DUSK
Nobody stands under those three lines.
One’s more a graze: static, orange, angled
strangely to the others. All enclose
us as we once were, and pared down
to fantastic optimism; the moon
we drew, slowly.
That ‘dusk’ in the title, of course, immediately puts us in the kind of penumbral half-light which shadows many of the poems in the collection, but any sense of this being a relatively simple response to the sight of contrails in the evening sky – with all the associations of travel and transience this image might conventionally conjure – is immediately tilted askew by the ambiguities spinning off that ostensibly straightforward opening line. On the one hand, of course, it’s probably true that nobody can really be said to be standing directly under the vaporous traces of high-flying aircraft. And, even if we allow ‘stands under’ a more approximate meaning, it’s also entirely possible that the poet is on her own or at least can’t see anybody else whilst looking at them herself. Then again, perhaps, she is an aeroplane looking down on the trails, rather than standing under them. Or is this simply a paradox – because if nobody at all is standing under or looking up at the trails, who is writing the poem? And who are the ‘we’ who make an appearance only a few lines later?
This, then, is one tiny example of how Behrens successfully engages in ‘making strange’ the apparently ordinary and in opening up ways to explore the emotional hinterlands – or indeed penumbras – surrounding often minutely observed details. Here, too, is a sonic precision – the sequence of sounds in ‘stands’, ‘graze’, ‘static’, ‘orange’, ‘angled’, strangely’, ‘enclose’, for example – and a capacity for deft and telling phrase-making which generates new energies around otherwise over-used or somewhat lifeless words like that ‘fantastic’ in ‘pared down/to fantastic optimism’.
In fact, ‘pared down’ is itself an indicator of Behrens’ aesthetic. The poems in Penumbra are brief (although not always so brief as the poem cited above), taut and written with an unfaltering economy which at the same time doesn’t exclude verbal exuberance: ‘I almost trip; riff-raff/tipped, punch drunk with death,/he tumbles out’ (‘Pigeon’) or ‘Dama dama: the human drama’ (‘Fallow Deer at Stonor’: dama dama being the Latin name for the eponymous deer as well as a distant echo of, perhaps, ‘dada’ and the ‘DA’s towards the end of ‘The Waste Land’).
Words and phrases we’d use in other forms of language-game to clarify, explain or merely join together disparate units of meaning don’t intrude, their absence and the resultant paratactical juxtapositions simultaneously serving to drive the poems forward, make the ‘making strange’ all the stranger and providing us with spaces – or, more accurately, gaps – by means of which we can engage with the poem and its penumbra or what I’ve called its emotional hinterland.
For a book called Penumbra, in fact, much of its contents are unusually sharp and vibrant. Yes, these poems are certainly overshadowed by loss and grief, by isolation and violence (the natural world here often has a Hughesian or Oswaldian ferocity to it – as exemplified in the line: ‘Unravelling un-souled guts/is rabbit machinery outed by kites’ from ‘On the Edge of the Field’). At the same time, however, many of the poems remind us that a penumbra is neither total darkness (the poems set at night are notable for their references to the splashes and bursts of light which counterpoint the darkness) nor abruptly sectioned from the unshadowed light beyond it. A penumbra, in short, is a liminal or Janus-like state – one can look inwards towards the deeper shadow and its cause or outwards towards the spaces beyond its margins – as, indeed, Behrens does in the poems placed in the later sections of the book, such as ‘Two Writers Walking’, ‘Girl on Motorway Bus’ and ‘From Watlington Hill’.
Never less than accomplished, never less than intriguing, the poems in Penumbra exhibit the kind of empirical and aesthetic care which distinguishes the best of the contemporary poetry written in the tradition that’s taken William Carlos Williams’ infamous remark ‘no ideas but in things’ as one of its key starting points. Some perhaps would take Behrens’ writerly tactics as essentially surrealist (‘blue pavements’ etc), but, looked at more closely, hers are, in fact, much closer to the strategies of realism – only a realism turned on the unique psychological and emotional experiences of the individual. As she writes in ‘Dead Tree Amongst Memorials’, her poems hang ‘like small banners, like meanings/allowed to drift towards dying/and reform.’
Tom Phillips is a poet, playwright and lecturer currently living in Sophia. He is the founding editor of the annual journal Balkan Poetry Today, publishes Colourful Star, a weekly blog with the painter Marina Shiderova and was a translator-in-residence at the Sofia Literature and Translation House in August 2016. He has published Recreation Ground, a collection of poems in English Nepoznati Prevodi/Unknown Translations, a bilingual collection of poems he wrote in Bulgarian and then translated into English.
Jean Watkins’s Precarious Lives reviewed by James Roderick Burns
Precarious Lives by Jean Watkins. £9.99. Two Rivers Press. ISBN: 978-1-909747-41-8
Precarious Lives is a book of contradictions. On the one hand bristling with energy and commitment, fresh perspectives on the issues of the day – climate change, the migrant crisis, cultural appropriation – laid out in bold, vivid language; on the other occasionally losing steam, dropping focus or even sliding into cliché. This Jekyll-and-Hyde character occurs throughout, often within the same poem, and can make for a frustrating – if stimulating – read.
Take the issue of climate change. Watkins is an effortless poet of nature, and the intimate, surprising details of the natural world suffuse every comer of the book, so the theme is fitting as well as urgent. ‘Wasps’ – ‘ton-up boys’ with ‘ hostile hum’ – demonstrate in sharp, plangent and witty ways the tragedy of our impact on the world. The poem meanders in a carefully-drunken concrete pattern around the page, as if to demonstrate the insects’ disorientation. Its conclusion is devastating:
xxWhere have they gone?
No more bicarb
xxon stings, dead bodies
xxxxon the window-sills,
xxxxxxno drunkards on windfall apples,
xxxxxxxxpot-holes in the plums,
xxxxxxno flight path
xxxxunder the soffit
xxpapery nests in the loft.
Note the ‘pot-holes’ and flight path’: far from coincidental aspects of disappearance, but included with the lightest of touches, and working to underscore the resonant loss of these delicate creatures as well as to condemn the authors of that loss.
Watkins is similarly skilful in a sequence of concrete poems about clouds, ‘Suffolk Skies’. Here the detail is sparing, but telling, the wit evident without ever veering into whimsy:
Cirrocumulus, too, has both an environmental and emotional impact:
(a) (mackerel) (sky) (seems) (so) (benign)
(an) (aerial) (spread) (of) (silver) (scales)
(but) (do) (not) (let) (its) (symmetry) (deceive)
(it) (is) (the) (mail-clad) (herald) (of) (a) (storm)
These are poems that joy and frolic in form, spinning tales of warning from tiny, precise details and the sweep of tone, built up line by line. For Watkins, too, can astonish by the word:
Life-water pulses through the gills,
fins fan pearl space shading to blue
stab the lawn, drag on elastic worms
(‘From the Kitchen Sink’)
She’d praise the girls who could project
the voice to resonate in their bony vaults
It is all the more surprising, then, when the poet tails away into dullness –’I expected eyes unfocused/not that gaze, blue violet –/the shock of it ran through me’ (‘Meeting Her Eyes’); cliché (‘our red raw hands’, ‘Fishwives’; ‘the pearl grey light’, ‘December Beechwood’; ‘Old men/still and inscrutable as the lizards sunning on town walls’, ‘San Gimignano’); or simply tired images which can feel almost phoned-in:
You have to imagine the wind
a cold spray slap in the face
waves level above you
salt smell canvas creak
clinking of rigging on mast
In a poem immediately adjacent to the old men/lizards, ‘In Tuscany’ (incidentally a cool, taut corrective to unthinking cultural absorption), Watkins wrestles the image back and boots it vigorously into the realm of originality:
We, mad dogs, walked out past walls
where lizards baked like cakes
This tendency to move away from supple, intricate verse into something more didactic seems to occur most often when the poet has a ‘big message’ to convey. The final stanza of a villanelle, ‘Warming’, is typical:
Are humans fated, like the dinosaur,
to face extinction in a vast meltdown?
Or the conclusion to ‘Our Dream’, a tale of desperate migrants making the Mediterranean crossing and losing a child:
So now we’re in a camp, a dreary life,
long queue for food, not knowing when we’ll leave,
my mother sick, for cholera is rife –
but still we have our dream, we still believe.
It is as though in seeking to make her arguments – with which no one could argue – Watkins loses sight of the medium, and its essential material, language, a material she handles so deftly elsewhere, in favour of underlining Points to Take Away. As when lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Inversnaid’ (‘What would the world be, once bereft/Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left’) were carved into the concrete wall of the new Scottish Parliament building, poems raising urgent attention to an issue work best when the message is subordinate to the poetry.
Compare the opening of ‘After Sonnet 64, Shakespeare’ to that of ‘The Ruined House, John Sell Cotman; c. 1807-10’:
When I have seen how we have poisoned seas
with micro-plastics never to decay;
scarred landscapes, nuclear waste, the death of trees,
how hives collapse, song thrushes fall away.
What made him chose this half-abandoned house –
it leans, walls sag, the gable held together by a board.
End wall collapsed, supported by the timber frame,
it stands wide open to the weather and our gaze.
While both are poems, the first feels somewhat laboured, groaning under its message and the need to communicate. The second is lithe, evocative, painting the kind of decay the world has always witnessed and which is far preferable to the galloping destruction of industrial society. That both are the work of the same poet is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, and sums up the strange achievement of the collection as a whole.
James Roderick Burns is the author of three short-form collections, most recently The Worksongs of the Worms (2018). His work has appeared in The Guardian, The North and The Scotsman. He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.