Wednesday, March 03, 2010
The current issue of New Welsh Review features a review of mine of Keri Finlayson’s excellent collection, Rooms, which I hereby recommend. But it also reminds me of a review I had in that journal an issue or two back of Claire Crowther’s The Clockwork Gift (Shearsman, £8.95), and which I hereby recycle in a similar spirit of recommendation.
Philip Larkin’s ‘Dockery and Son’ judders to a halt against the buffers of ‘age, and then the only end of age’. If is seems a terminus, many writers (not least Larkin himself) have found it a starting point too, and much of Claire Crowther’s new collection, The Clockwork Gift, addresses itself to the condition of grandmotherhood. A grandmother is an ‘Endpaper, Scissorsmile, Leatherface, /Filetongue, Veinlady, Spiderheart...’, to list just six of the terms from ‘Names’, none of them exactly flattering. ‘Woman, Probably one of the Fates’ considers representations of the older woman in art, and the older female body as a metaphorised space of self-representation: ‘When wrinkles etch so deeply they lattice neck /and muzzle forehead, skin takes over, //makes a fabric of old stone.’ ‘Skin’, the poem concludes, ‘is resistance.’
To introduce Crowther’s work like this may set up unfairly thematic expectations of a book’s worth of cheery gender reclamation and uplift, but in truth Crowther’s poetry is thematic only in the sense that C major is the theme of a Bach prelude or fugue. The skin of Crowther’s poems is resistant to obviousness. Among the successes of her style is her ability to seem mysterious but not forbidding or arch, burrowing into her material, whether archaelogically or with her gardening gloves. ‘Lines get broken’, she writes in ‘Petra Genetrix’, and throughout The Clockwork Gift she shows a deft and unusual way with lineation. Alternating long and short (sometimes one-word) lines are a recurring pattern, or wandering indents in the style of Lorine Niedecker, as in ‘Empire’, with its consideration of (cue catastrophic true lineation failure; now you know what that mermaid looks so glum):
dead-nettle and betony
and the supposedly graceful
cramped under wicker fingers
that could slit hands,
your eyes once.
You tried to dig it out.
Its roots are infected
by some virus
that turns the clay soil
round the stems to cement.
The tiny eyes of its leaves
flash open each year
among dog grass,
dog campion, dog roses.
Still on the subject of what might lurk in the garden, The Clockwork Gift makes a notable contribution to English suburban gothic in the ‘thike’, an imaginary creature that stalks several of these poems, whose feet ‘stick to any surface’ and whose corpses ‘smell of fresh grouting’. A close cousin of Raymond Briggs’ bogey, perhaps? ‘Sleeping on a Trampoline’ ends with the richly absurd image of a thike so desperate to exit its mother’s uterus it calls to a passer-by, threatening to jump. Like any good nonsense writing, Crowther’s poem has no difficulty in making you ‘agree to wrong /ideas.’
Eavan Boland has written at length about ageing in her poetry, but Crowther’s work is much less reminiscent of Boland than it is of another Irish poet, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, as in the sequence ‘St Anne’s Apocrypha’, with its troping of Catholic iconography and subtle intimations of the pressure-points between the actual and the numinous. Earlier in the book, ‘Xylotheque’ introduces the theme of ghosts, and the central poem ‘The Herebefore’ is a long meditation on the commerce between the living and the dead (‘It’s indefensible, falling in love with the dead’). I can’t help being reminded by that title of Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘wha’s been here before me lass’, in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, and Crowther’s poem conveys a similar generational continuity and mystery, ending with its female figure ‘arc-lit /in gold water’:
We would watch her cross the wall
with her words, the woman below copying
the woman above, an image of synchronicity,
as tightly turned as her every stall at my desk.
No skull but a new-coined queen.
Other enjoyable moments from this collection include the austery era echoes of ‘A Seafront Wake for the Postwar’, the witchy overtones of ‘The Blood Queen’, and the single-sentence rush and McGuckianesque lushness of ‘Lucy’s Light’. Crowther’s line in tangy natural detail with a mythopoeic edge (not to mention the odd burst of Latin too) can be evocative of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns minus the Anglicanism. We are not told where Crowther lives, but the clues suggest the West Midlands (Hob’s Moat), which I feel licenses my detection of a Roy Fisher influence too, notably in its description of parks and public spaces. But this is not to play spot-the-influences in the usual way of explaining why the author of a first or second collection has yet to achieve artistic autonomy. The Clockwork Gift comes just two years after Stretch of Closures, Crowther’s distinctive debut, and between them they add up not just to a promising first collection and a speedy follow-up, but a real and achieved body of work by a striking talent. The Clockwork Gift is a pleasure to read.