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Review of jane Draycott's Over - Frances Leviston, Poetry London

Autumn 2009


 

'Pass', from Jane Draycott's third collection Over, is . . . about the vulnerability of young people and their parents' sense of protectiveness. Parents of a grown up daughter out driving the car alone for the first time at night 'try in vain / to visualise your course, the unlit shipping lanes, / the shoals of stars'. A child's impending adulthood and independence are, like the water through which a submarine might move, alien elements into which her parents cannot see or follow. It's perhaps too neat a poem, but it also illustrates the difference between D'Aguiar's imagined listener - an impassioned, demanding public - and Draycott's audience of one. T S Eliot described poetry as 'one person talking to another', and her work is certainly that: direct, tender, with the sense of special privilege to be had in private conversation, all consummately made for the speaking voice. 'Sky Man' is a better example, with its gentle refrain - 'Not you. You' - singling out the reader, drawing him or her into a landscape of sound:

Waits at the wilderness
edge of your leaf eye.
Cloud mine. Your sky.
Palm fringed. Your eye.
Not you. You.

This is not so much talking, perhaps, as whispering in your ear. The title of the book, Over, refers to the end of a dispatch in radio communications, and voices and messages are everywhere: a mysterious woman glimpsed at a window across a crowded square 'in her eyes is saying It's too late now'; picnickers on a hillside 'lay out / the argument and patterning of our feast'. Like a sensitive, as they used to be called, Draycott is alert to all the nuances and echoes, the subtleties of light and tone, the second-by-second portents and myths that constitute our sense of the world.
'Over' is also the title of the final sequence of poems prompted by the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet - 'Alpha', 'Bravo', 'Charlie' and so on. The schematic structure presents the poet with an opportunity to be even more creative than usual in order to escape, Houdini-like, from her own imaginative confinement. The poems that make up 'Over' turn constantly in unexpected, intuited directions, like someone following blind the sound of birdsong through a wood. What is it, exactly, that connects all the images found in 'Whiskey'?

Deep-sea flame fish
calling, the heart

harpooning. Something
in the dark is flashing.

Gold in the blood,
everything you know.

The fire on the little sandy beach.
The bear at the window.

The glamour of the wilderness, solitude, fleeting epiphany, passion unleashed? But Draycott is too canny to romanticize such things for long. When the real threat comes in the final line it does not seem misplaces: 'No one escapes'. The whole sequence seems to teeter on the edge of disaster, as if the wild frontiers of 'Yankee' are always ready to reclaim the civilisations being depicted, with their 'lens-grinder's glass', 'the ships, the idols, the distant city of mist'.
Over contains an excerpt from 'Pearl', Draycott's translation of the Middle English spiritual poem (due to be published spearately by Carcanet in 2010), which manages to energize the Middle English love of haevy patterning and alliteration into something plausibly contemporary without sacrificing its character. The voice of the poem has lost its 'spotless pearl', but as it mourns this loss it also tries to find some solace in it:

Although this watching sears my heart
and wrings the wires of sadness tighter,
the song this silence sings to me
is the sweetest I have heard.

Like most poems in the book, 'Pearl' has an enviable effortlessness, a restraint, which is neither coy nor unambitious but the mark of a poet determined to explore without violating the language she has so carefully chosen.




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