Elizabeth Barrett is a mixed poet whose work I find engaging. ... We have a range of poems between the often beautifully personal, and the imaginative (fanciful), magical, even fey poems in the section Penelope's Magpies. In the opening sequence of sonnets and sonnet-like pieces concerned with, one surmises, the death of the poet's mother, a poem like Kingfisher is a remarkable expression of the commonplace activity of having to take pills:
In those last days she objected (gently)
to the trays of drugs the nurses brought:
I'm not a kingfisher she told me.
Swallowing was hard. She hadn't caught
those pills in river light - didn't have the king
bird's knack of flicking them in the air
until they perfect-angled down the o-ring
of her open throat...
From poems that arise from a compassionate attention to the dying mother, to the post-death unpleasantness of family life. The poem Matriarch describes what happened to the poet because of a resentment of siblings and the stepfather
I couldn't forgive:
...The only time
I went back to her house. I asked her other daughter
why I'd been left out. She gave it me straight:
Because you're an arse. I asked for more.
I don't talk to people I don't like my sister said...
I cursed her and turned my back. Then, from behind,
my mother's husband kicked me down the steps...
The transition from the compassionately lyrical - albeit quietly lyrical - to the brutal drama of so-called real life in contrasting poems, demonstrates the skill and openness of Elizabeth Barrett's talent. And there is a note too of Larkinesque despair in lines like these once you've lost the toughest things -
daughter, mother - why bother holding on to others?
Oddly, the lapidary second section of more or less prose poems all about the quarrying in the Isle of Portland for its famous stone, is accompanied by a full page of notes whose interest does not really elevate the whole much above the dull. Something which I shouldn't really have felt seeing as the notes quote from Baudelaire and Rilke, two of my favourite poets.
Love and flights of the imagination (the latter throughout the volume symbolized by various birds) are Elizabeth Barrett's main sources of inspiration. A particularly fine poem is Storm. A few lines from this will illustrate what I might term Barrett's 'best practice':
The photos he was taking
took flight when they stopped talking.
She settled her gaze on his slim hands
the shape of them around his camera
framing a golden aperture...
She tried to fly between the gates of his hands...
into his lens...
and at the end of the same poem:
And she thought of him on the hill
above her; held, anchored by family.
On the shipping news she heard the force 10
storm would lose its identity by dawn
She clung to her rock, waiting to sleep him off.
One of Elizabeth Barrett's greatest strengths is a gift for the beautifully crafted, suggestive understatement - as can be seen in that last line. And another general point that needs to be made concerns her near-totemistic identification with birds: see, for example, Penelope's Magpie. This poet may well be a distinguished academic, but there is a touch of witchcraft in her work! Perhaps that's the point of course: only an academic with her 'insights' could have analysed an ancient folk superstition so effectively in the poem Seven Magpies in a School Car Park.
...Elizabeth Barrett produces the fine phrase that is also a reflection of her own unique voice, as in lines like
the stand of water / ...its surface trembling / like a held-back tear's collapse. While, finally, the personal becomes metaphysical:
So there we have it. A poet of singularity, well worth the reading.