Eleanor Rees, The Well at Winter Solstice (Salt, 2019, £9.99)
David Clarke, The Europeans (Nine Arches, 2019, £9.99)
Eleanor Rees’s new collection opens with three quotations which make plain the preoccupations of the ahead. The most telling is from Taliesin: ‘I have been in a multitude of shapes,/Before I assumed a consistent form.’ The other two are from Karen Barad and Rosi Braidotti (who contributes an afterword), both academics and theorists who have written on the subject of ‘post-humanism,’ a concept new to me, but which seeks to break down distinctions between humans and other species or forms of matter. This notion is fundamental to the book, not only to its subject matter but its very creation. In an online article for Poetry Wales, Rees argues that the poet is ‘a conduit… in the philosophical tradition of new-material or post-human thought,’ who moves ‘energies… into another state: words.’ The Well at Winter Solstice is, then, poetry conceived as energy and living substance, shaped through imagery of transformation and flux.
The poem ‘The Channelling’ encapsulates many of the book’s key themes. It begins:
A boy in the woods stands still,
in the heat
of an incoming storm,
wakes, younger, skin soft,
cries as his body returns to seed
and pools on the earth,
a dew swept into the wind,
a swarm of bees.
As the poem proceeds, the boy
like a dog,
feathers become owl…
Some images in this poem are reminiscent of episodes from The Mabinogion, in which shape-shifting is a recurrent motif. Shape-shifting, of course, is common in folklore, and can be understood as a kind of haunting in which spirits or souls move around the physical world distinct from their material bodies. Indeed, Rees’s book is populated by spirits and ghosts of all kind. A number of poems take place in Liverpool’s St James’s Cemetery, as in ‘Bridie’s Tomb,’ where Rees tells us:
Children died. Five years. One. Gone.
The curl of the clock wrings the day dark.
The passage is atmospheric enough to make the reader shiver, its slow syllables pre-empting the clock which, as it chimes the hours, seems in Rees’s phrasing to count the children’s sad, short lives down into the ground. Here the poetry is tender and affecting, while elsewhere the faceless apparitions Rees conjures can be truly chilling, as in ‘Samhain’:
When the dark came
I was sleeping. He knocked at the door
in the middle of the night.
I let him in while dreaming.
A restrained lyricism sustains the solemnity, and even where Rees’s voice lifts a little (as in ‘Beltane’ – ‘I am everywhere and O I am not’), this generally avoids sounding overblown, instead taking on the quality of a lament.
Among the many fine explorations of death, darkness and the spectral, however, I did begin to wonder if something was missing from the collection as a whole. Matter and energy may be fluid and interchangeable, but winter solstice is an fixed point in the inter-relation of time and the physical world. It exists in opposition to summer solstice, a time of light and life. The poems borrow from Celtic religious concepts (such as the seasonal festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain); but while pre- Christian belief systems in Europe certainly paid attention to death, this was understood as part of a cycle in which the darkness of winter was balanced by the light and fertility of summer. In these poems, darkness heavily outweighs light. Take ‘St James’s in December,’ where we have a rare glimpse of living humans and a suggestion of fertility, as ‘a boy presses a girl/into the wall…’; but as the poem moves on we see ‘water leaching into their trainers’, until
… as the couple kiss…
teeth in the graves clatter…
as your ship sinks down
and under into the frost.
As sex slides down into death, how does life find its way back?
This is not a fault in the poetry, but more a conceptual issue which is open to debate. Drawing heavily as it does on philosophical constructs, the book exists not only as poetry but as a sort of spiritual thesis – and this is part of its interest. One of its key tenets can be found in ‘The Lighthouse’:
Endings come at different
tides, not at once,
not at the same moment,
not after and before,
but within the swell of the bell
chiming at intervals
which do not exist.
This bell evokes none of the pathos found in ‘Bridie’s Tomb,’ where sorrow for the dead children lets us off the hook. ‘The Lighthouse’ is frightening because it suggests a nothingness: if the intervals of the bell do not exist, what of the intervals between birth and death? If we are all part of the same energy, have we ever actually lived? The Well at Winter Solstice presents us with poems which are not just spooky, but scary – and invites us to argue for our lives.
An all-too familiar argument lies at the heart of David Clarke’s second full collection, The Europeans. Published three years after the EU referendum, Clarke’s poems do not take sides, but instead ask how we came to reach this point. Placed early in the book are two poems which offer astutely different views of Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours; the first, ‘An Exchange,’ re-lives an early experience of the Continent, as a school party alights
… on some verge
beside a modern monument in Essen,
Lichtenstein, or (was it?) Strasbourg-Ouest.
As the narrator recalls:
… We took the punctual
buses into reasonable towns, mooched
along the closed arcades…
Forsaking one dull province for another,
we had found ourselves, in fact, transformed.
This is at first glance the dreary side of the European dream: mundane small-town life replicated across a continent, one country indistinguishable from the next. The narrator encounters no exotica, but in recognising his own image in the foreign land, nonetheless achieves a revelation of common humanity. The following poem, ‘The Europeans,’ is equally wry but stands in perfect contrast, capturing the yearning – for a richer and somehow truer life – that underpins much British Europhilia:
I saw the Europeans drinking wine under
It was August and their children seemed wise
beyond their years, moving with the dappled
I became convinced they knew something
they would not tell me, but I did not dare
to ask the veterans on the parched square.
‘They’ are of course not merely the French or the Dutch, but everyone in Europe. This is a (tongue-in-cheek) Romantic’s generalisation; a less wistful narrator might instead see a Europe in which cultural distinctions are unimportant simply because none of these people are us (one suspects that post- humanism might not wash with the Brexit Party).
So who are we? How has Britain come to be split between those who look to Europe as a utopia of sophistication and freedom, and those who feel it has robbed them of themselves? Clarke’s poems wander on through snapshots of a Britain – especially an England – which has grown tired, thin, lacking in confidence. ‘To a Public House’ observes:
Tonight the ring-road’s rashed with new- builds, flogging
coq au vin and kiddie swings…
before it reaches its stunning ending:
Who’ll threaten now to split my lip? Who’ll stand beside me
to piss in silent prayer? I drink alone in what was once called time.
Like Rees’s ‘intervals/which do not exist’, the narrator is out of time and out of place; he is a ghost in his own world. Note the ‘coq au vin’ on the menu in the ubiquitous chain pub: in this shallow, identikit cosmopolitanism, even the awful food looks down its nose at you.
For all its sharp observations, the poetry is warm and playful in tone, its ambition to understand rather than accuse (with the possible exception of ‘In the Snug,’ directed at a certain ‘Little man… frog- faced in your better bookie’s coat… as you feed us one more slightly racist joke’). The poems bound along with a conversational patter, the rhythm carrying us so enjoyably that their depth can catch us unawares, as in ‘England, I loved you’:
Now you abandon me…
as a state outsources its grief to the lowest
bidder. I only hurt you now so you’ll see me
Other poems take us further afield, and into earlier times. ‘The Clock’ describes the delivery of a valuable clock, apparently a gift between rulers, across the ocean to the ‘carved teak gates’ of a Sultan’s compound, the landscape’s novel charms delicately evoked (‘… a maze/of pot- palms, wind-chimes, blue-tiled fountains’). ‘The Amber Room’ describes the destruction during the Second World War of a room in St Petersburg once belonging to Peter the Great. Told in the voice of one of the wreckers, the poem manages to convey the crime while resisting judgement, with a sensitivity typical of the book as a whole. Despite some forays abroad, The Europeans remains ultimately a collection more concerned with Britain and its changing fortunes than with wider Europe – but much the same could be said for Brexit. These engaging poems are a wise place to start making sense of our current turmoil.