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Review: A Dart of Green and Blue, by Elizabeth Barrett

This is going to sound extremely geeky, but one of my favourite things about Elibazeth Barrett's fourth collection is the way it's organised. The poems are placed under four section headings: 'Kingfisher', 'Gull View North', 'Penelope's Magpie' and 'Finch'. Delving into the sections was a lot of fun indeed, and it's immediately apparent that the book's main preoccupations, if not its theme - the dart of green and blue of the title - is birds and fish, real and metaphorical. The title poem of the first section, in which 'Barrett imagines her dying mother (to whom this collection is dedicated) transformed into a kingfisher', is quoted in the book's blurb:

... I waited. Watched. It only took one
hour before a dart of brilliant green and blue
flashed past me (going somewhere) and was gone.

Using wildlife to cast metaphorical light on human stories, such as happens here (and sometimes in Routh,) is hardly new. The reason I'm not complaining is that this Kingfisher is as real as the mother whose last breaths it illuminates; neither one is a cartoon. Several species of birds are used in the collection (I want to say 'referenced', but that sounds like we're talking about a twitcher's guide), each one for its unique visual, behavioural and metaphorical characteristics. I'm always impressed by poetry which, even when entirely human, isn't biased towards humans as if we're inherently special; poetry which doesn't just throw in the occasional flying or scuttling thing for convenient decorative effect. This respect for wildlife is inherent in Ted Hughes and - more recently - Matt Merritt, or John Burnside and Andy Brown's Goose Music. One box ticked for this book, then. I'm also impressed when sections are very distinct, so that each reads like a mini pamphlet of its own. This allows us to give each sequence proper attention as a piece in itself as well as in context. The second box ticked. Finally, I can't get enough of poetry about - or 'referencing' - the sea, so it'll be no surprise to learn that my favourite sequence was II: Gull View North. Here are two stanzas from it. The first contains all the multi-sense, physicality and spirituality you could ask for (the last of which depends on the other two to work) as well as another list with metaphorical muscle. The second is a microcosm of the collection's interest in birds, fish and - last but in no way least - people:

II

Pulpit Rock. Hallelujah. Dead Man's Bay. Sea-struck
land with one bound stone on a shingle bank.
Waves heave themselves onto the beach
and pull back. She can hardly stand - picks
her way through pebble heaps dragging at her feet.
Above the clatter disturbed stones whisper:
here is the way to slowly end, to disappear.

IV

She turns a bird's eye, rises with the skylarks over it;
the island dips in a south-south westerly wind,
a tethered moon lifting its bleached face to the sky.
In Dead Man's Bay the wind drives lerrets onto cliffs.
At the Island's tip a man sits staring out to sea,
caught in silver light. His back has set to stone.
He is counting fish: Mullet, Mackerel, Sea Bass.

This kind of poetry (if I can call it a 'kind') - love and loss, living and dead, land and sea, feathers and fins - can sometimes attract that neo-slur, 'mainstream' (codeword for 'bland and predictable'). Like Routh, Barrett is aware of that cynicism where, in Forest, she writes with a deadpan humour: Aren't the dead trees wonderful, he says. // And of course (this is a magic poem) / they stray from the path... But, (also like Routh,) she then carries on regardless. All three of these collections are plain-speaking to varying degrees. They're unashamedly concerned with human life, feeling, and the close observation of real things. They're not that interested in playing academic/ experimental (delete where appropriate) linguistic games with their readers. And yet, 'mainstream' vs. 'demanding' - often fought by critics needing to justify what they as individuals like and don't like - is a grudge match I'm not particularly interested in. This kind of poetry demands nothing other than that we observe our world more closely, think on it, feel something for it. It celebrates the lives and loved ones of the real people critics call 'readers'. It's (to use another dirty word) life-affirming. I recommend all three books on that basis, but I'm flying the flag full-mast for Barrett.