Someone is looking for us; we give nothing away.
This is stillness: we emit no waves of sound
or light. We are the stopped heart of a vortex ...
So begins the last poem in A Dart of Green and Blue, a collection that focuses on absences by detailing the vitality and energy that surrounds them. Here poems on death, lost love, tranformations and distintegration jostle among birds, children, music and history.
Throughout Barrett's voice seems to pass through a surreal filter that transmutes pain into a different energy: the dying mother is the titular dart of [brilliant] green and blue. When a relationship is over, another woman
is learning to live / under a sky which widens without him. Yet the tone never becomes cloying or irritatingly optimistic - Elizabeth Barrett is no Pollyanna. She includes the hurt, bewilderment and isolation that come with loss. Uncomfortable truths are not skirted: the bereaved stepfather is surrounded by a
resent of siblings, a granddaughter outgrowing her dead grandmother's home-made pyjamas:
We were still unhealed; nothing
to be done but sit in a circle of light
sniping at thread - unpicking her last
stitches, unfolding my mother's hem.
The sequence that is my highlight of the book (there are four distinct sections spread across narratives, mythology, and fantasy) is 'Gull View North'. In it a woman and the land become inseparable as they disappear. Past movements, vulnerabilities and unions are welded together so their histories have a common heartbeat. The language is pared back to an extraordinary verve of tension, coupled with a twisting of perspective: from ground to sky, ritual to meteorology; so the sense becomes unbalanced, but never to the extent you feel out of control. An intimate moment between lovers pans out to a battlefield and conquest:
When he takes her nipple between his teeth
a voice echoes on the white stone walls ...
Stone of the dead. Whispering stone.
Stone of banquets and feasts. Bring the King's mutton; those hardy ewes ...
the sea sucks at white cliffs ... it turns the stone to crumble... so she is erased into the history of the place. A sequence of 14 seven line stanzas, it unfolds with mythic proportions. Totally gripping.
I can't believe I haven't come across Elizabeth Barrett before - this is her fourth book - and I shall certainly be looking out for her next, and previous ones.