Keeping the Light: Review by Penny Boxall
‘Lightkeepers’ by Elizabeth Burns, ‘After Economy’ by J. L. Williams, ‘The Abandoned Settlements’ by James Sheard
Review by Penny Boxall
Elizabeth Burns’s Lightkeepers opens with a poem of restrained heartache. ‘The recovery room // is where they wheel you afterwards’, where ‘there’s a quiet, end-of-day feel’. She describes an unremarkable routine, but it is underscored with the unspeakable sadness of the incurable:
. . . someone says, Your husband’s here, and he’s standing
in the open doorway, wearing the clothes of the outer world
But it’s the outer world the speaker craves, even if the outdoors is cold and inhospitable. And in fact, we are relieved to find that rather than this being the end, it is a beginning – ‘the tests are clear’, and ‘the winter on your skin’, rather than inviting a chill, is invigorating and life-affirming.
It is sad to remember, particularly after the redemption of the opening poem, that this collection is a posthumous one. The editors, Gerrie Fellows and Jane Routh, have put together a thoughtful and carefully constructed book in which Burns’s voice glows. The poems often relate to the domestic. Take, for instance, the circumspect ‘Dresser’:
The dresser has its own history, hidden in the wood . . .
hidden inside the musty smells
with all the secret tales from long ago and far away,
new things are being added to a history, stories
that the blue and lovely dresser is keeping to itself.
In the absence of the author in the construction of this collection, one is aware of the overlaying of two types of voice: the voice that, enlivened, speaks directly to us, and the voice which we can no longer hear. To read these poems is to acknowledge that absence without feeling lonelier for it, like being upstairs in bed while the grownups talk below, their familiar chatter no less comforting because the words are indistinct.
Domestic furniture fascinates Burns. ‘Cupboard’ tracks the growth of an acorn into a tree, into a church door, into a cupboard, and then deftly turns on a sixpence: ‘Everything is inside everything else . . . further back to Oswald and the altar, / to ancestors who worshipped the oak tree, which came from the acorn’.
Burns acknowledged that her style tends towards the discursive, and occasionally the fine figure of the poem itself is a little masked by loose clothing; the editors write that they have not been able to second-guess Burns’s own exacting edits to the existing material, and that they have only included ‘finished’ poems. So it is a particular joy when Burns’s words are lithe as the images they engender, as with this lovely summation of the acorn’s potential. The title poem ‘Lightkeepers’ is more prosaic in tone, but delivers the most beautiful image at the end: the poet imagines herself adventuring with the ghost of the young R. L. Stevenson, meeting the boys who carry concealed lanterns into the lanes:
from the islands flare across the sea, beacons in darkness.
We come to the end of the road. His is the last house.
We take what light we can to keep us through the night.
‘We have understood our task’, Fellows and Routh write in the afterword, ‘as not being to memorialise . . . but to produce in her absence the nearest we could come to the collection she had not had time to complete’. A difficult emotional task, but one to which the editors are graciously equal.
If Burns’s collection is like the soothing chatter of grownups, the voices in J. L. Williams’s After Economy are more akin to the half-heard voices of dreams – compelling, disorientating, moreish – leaving you, on waking, wondering what just happened. The endorsements inside the front cover contain, from Eleanor Wilner, a delicious paragraph of praise for Williams’s writing:
For some reason, slightly unfathomable, I am reminded of a forest we visited on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido where the annual winter ice festival is held. The forest is sprayed for days by the local fire department, but not before flowers and colored lights have been hung within the branches . . .
The resultant ‘crystal forest’ – ‘all so unexpected, and so extravagantly beautiful’ – is what is called to Wilner’s mind by Williams’s poems. It is pleasing to turn to the first page and read the title poem, which details this process, presumably drawn, in its turn, from Wilner’s description:
The first rinse takes some time, a glassy sheathing,
the second ices each branch quick and soon
the entire frozen forest glitters and shimmers
from within – each bulb encased in ice
a mouth through which the final word
of the world is shining out; light, light.
Wilner’s impression of the experience of reading these poems is recreated aptly by Williams’s poem and, in a further meta-move, this could be a description of the experience of reading the collection as a whole. The first reading ‘takes some time, a glassy sheathing’, but as the chill thaws there are chinks to let the light through, and a sense of the shared.
There is also a wry sense of fun at play throughout the collection. Take the cheekily-titled ‘New Aesthetic’, which runs, in its entirety:
the whale carcass on the beach with nearly all the flesh washed away
the taste of those salty bones defamiliarising words
We are cast into a strange ocean, for sure, where words have their own undercurrents. Incidentally, the cover design – an abstract whale skeleton in linocut by Anupa Gardner, blue vegetation twining the ribs, a glass ceiling above, so that it is not clear whether we are inside or out – could have inspired this poem just as much as it might illustrate it. Williams’s poetic walls are porous, and inspiration is a two-way process.
The prose-poems scattered throughout the collection, each tailed with a haiku like the moral to a Perrault fairytale, are of particular interest. ‘Watching Breaking Bad you realise both that your evil stepfather, similarly, sacrificed himself to his own personal disappointments and that Walter White is the character in the old story who forgets to ask the genie for the ship in which to bring the treasure home before he loses the magic lantern’, one opens. So the three characters – stepfather, Walter White, the character from the old story – are simultaneously distinct and one-and-the-same. The summary-haiku (which raises more questions than it answers) has it: ‘The red glittering / destruction of the self which / is also the heart.’ The heart slowly beats us into oblivion: a neat (if uncomfortable) thought, and one of many fecund ideas in this rich, strange collection.
James Sheard’s latest, The Abandoned Settlements, doesn’t shirk from discomfort either. The language may be moored, but these searching poems, in getting tenderly under your skin, aren’t afraid to draw blood. The little song of a poem, ‘Cinema’, for instance, is gangly with self-consciousness: ‘Lately, / I seem to have lost / my art of sitting’, it opens, ‘of knowing / how each limb / should lie, / or tell some truth’. Sheard is a very exacting craftsman: the speaker hasn’t lost the art of sitting (he can still physically sit), but his own particular art. That little word ‘my’ – almost invisible; we could easily misread it as ‘the’ – does much to suggest the nuances of the self, and how our poses affect the way we are seen. The play on ‘lie’ and ‘truth’ also demonstrates our physical duplicity. Here is a poet who knows exactly what he wants to say, and will tell it deftly and subtly, trusting in the creative input of the reader.
One of the most moving poems is ‘Late’, a gorgeous oblique dedication to a late-blossoming love:
You could be my garden, for think how gardens
can be our last and best love, our late love . . .
It blooms into the following: ‘You came to me, slowly, down the long shade // of the laburnum arch, as if approaching shyly // from the long years of my early and middle life – / dappled and distant, but coming on, coming on.’ It is so persuasive: quietly sexy and full of love.
The book, indeed, is full of elegy for love shelved and boxed. The exquisite ‘Scent’ so precisely evokes the experience of a remembered smell that its effect, too, is flooring. In the evocative scent’s being spilt, the past ‘is / a casket, split open / and then / closed to me / again.’ Sheard is a master of restraint, and never over-eggs the pudding.
And he, too, is preoccupied with light. ‘Letters, Light’ sees a lamp illuminating a book, ‘a chapter you might read / a light you could put / your fingers into / testing it like a wound / to see how much / you could bear . . .’ It’s not only endurance for pain that’s being tested, but also (as if the speaker is a sort of Doubting Thomas) belief. Go on, the poem seems to urge, read that chapter. For Sheard it is the membrane between self and other that is permeable, so that by inviting us in to his thoughts, we’re also letting him in to ours. This is a probing, fulfilling collection which reflects the spotlight off the page and onto ourselves.
Penny Boxall holds an MA with distinction in Creative Writing (Poetry) from UEA. Her collection, Ship of the Line, was published in 2014. She won the 2016 Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, and is a 2017 Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library and Hawthornden Fellow. She won first prize in 2016’s Elmet Poetry Competition and second in the 2014 Jane Martin Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in various publications, including The Sunday Times, Rialto, The Forward Book of Poetry 2015, The Salt Book of Younger Poets, Magma, The Literateur, Mslexia, and The North. She was formerly an Associate Lecturer in Poetry at Oxford Brookes.