- Full Disclosure: No connections to the poet, am friends with Lighthouse Pamphlets’ poetry editor Meirion Jordan.
Eleanor Rees’ third full collection, Blood Child, was followed soon after by a publication from Lighthouse Pamphlets, Riverine, which the back cover describes as a companion volume. The latter comes with an introductory essay from the poet, framing poetry ‘as verb not noun’, understanding the work as essentially dynamic. Rees seems to imply that the crux of her work is in the specific movements it makes from one idea to the next, perhaps more so than the static ideas themselves. If that philosophy sounds a little slippery, it might not be an accident; the messages Rees’ poems deliver are difficult to transcribe prosaically, moving as they do in a densely fairy-tale or dream-logical atmosphere. This aspect of her work in Blood Child and Riverine is hugely effective, creating a lush dreamscape full of mud, sludge, mulch and other fecundities, populated by eerie running children, unreliable parents, poet-birds and their panoramic perspectives.
A facet of this ballad-esque aesthetic, which informs almost every poem in these collections, is that it demands its protagonists be dreamily impersonal and fuzzy-edged. Rees’ fairy tale sources aim for universality, and draw strength from their claim to represent a story that can be understood by anyone (within a given set of cultural parameters). So ‘Blue Black’, a poem in which Rees takes on a bird-narrator’s voice, is prefaced by Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ‘coming ashore in the wilds of the Wirral’; the folk story filtered through the urban contemporary. Rees aims to draw the world of folklore into a contemporary light, as the gull-poet navigates ‘the wind-farm’s rotating blades’, ‘two empty seats in the back of the car, / shadow splashed on ripped upholstery’, while more identifiably mythic figures occupy the background:
on a promontory a tall man stands helmet-proud,
alert to fresh dark, his hair
limp with wetness, street-lights before him,
a succession of animals’ eyes.
Formally, the poem is a series of tableaux, building a quasi-narrative from its images, centring on the mysterious woman and children which open and close the piece:
the children are two black dots
running over the shingle from the dark night’s sea
towards a woman on her knees
in the moonlit sand, wide-opened arms
as if she is holding a towel on a summer’s day
though it is a December’s night. Is she me?
The flow from one such scene to the next is explicitly arbitrary (which for fairy-tale poetry is perfectly generically apt), as the gull’s capacity to narrate logically is repeatedly frustrated: ‘air currents push me back towards the edge’, ‘I’m flung north’, ‘feathers which turn me around’ ‘I am […] pulled towards sea’s rolling dark’. It is very much up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the highly suggestive but plentiful gaps.
‘A Burial of Sight’, Blood Child’s opening poem, is also composed of a series of short scenes (inspired by Adrian Henri’s mural, ‘Esmedune’). Here, the poet metamorphoses into a bird over the course of the poem, finally achieving her transformation in the final few stanzas:
In here I fly, big-handed and huge,
big-flooded and balmy, […]
my goose-flesh heated and steady,
my feathers a sheen of dusk-light,
brown and white and black.
‘A Burial of Sight’ is pointedly self-willed where ‘Blue Black’ is at the whims of nature; earlier the narrator performs a kind of self-negating ritual that seems connected to the achievement of poetic expression:
The lake rich with sludge
smells of bone meal
You watch me dip my toes in,
unzip my skirt, slip
down into thick, brown water.
My skin is heavy with moisture,
pricked with heat.
I eat at mud with my tongue.
Mineral rich salt
drips from my skin
puddling and slithery.
The deeply sensual performance (watched by the poet’s ‘Love’, the poem’s addressee) is set in contrast to the poem’s other protagonist, ‘another man’, who might or might not be that same ‘Love’, who:
out of breath through the morning streets
to love her, but is made of air.
He hits a wall like a ghost.
He loves only the invisible
Where the narrator eats earth and gains the power of voice, the man is nothing but air. Again, what narrative progression the poem might convey is difficult to specify, a manner of readerly Rorschach blot. If the man here is emblematic, he is somewhat at odds with the other men in the collection, who are more commonly rendered as animalistic, as with the knife-bearing man in ‘Blue Black’, the ‘predatory’ men of ‘The Bird Men of the Far Hill’:
They want to flatten your thighs.
They want to emit all their hurt.
They want you to take them
until you are as barren
as the winter ground
or as pock-marked as the muddy field.
or, in ‘Suburban Epic’ from Riverine:
The red-eyed man has a face which flies north, peels
off his skull like bats’ wings or folded paper
In the latter piece, this threat is explicitly sexual. The speaker is ‘encased in hands / which rub me like a child in a newly run bath or a grave’, the man leads the speaker to ‘the bridle-path to nowhere’:
he purrs beneath his breath as we mate,
him behind, me on my knees. Blood spots the parkland.
‘Suburban Epic’ is one of several poems animated in part by Angela Carter’s work in its acknowledgement of the violence (particularly towards women) inherent in folk tale and popular culture, and its deployment of highly metaphorically charged emblems to advance the poem’s meaning.
This aspect of Rees’ composition – a recurrent set of lush, meaningful symbols, particularly the sun, moon, earth (or mud, mulch, soil), trees, blood, air and the sea – does suffer slightly from over-use. Progressing through Blood Child and then straight into its companion volume emphasised how often these emblems appear at crucial dramatic moments. This may be intrinsic to the fairy-tale texture of the writing; it would very much diminish the flavour of the work for the poem to specify that the tree was an aspen or a douglas fir, for example. However, it also seems at odds with Rees’ assertion in her prefatory essay to Riverine about the importance of the specifically local; there are poems that reference Runcorn, Widnes, chippies and off-licenses, but these figures are only briefly glanced over and left before any insight into their character is conveyed. In ‘Dusk Town’, ‘A young man who drowned in 1815 rises up and walks’, ‘Across Castle Hill, a woman rides a horse into her fort’, ‘A teenage boy kisses a girl with pink hair by the library’, ‘an old sailor lifts a fork on a plate of chips’. The images are intriguing in isolation, and gesture toward deeper narratives, but the poem leaves little impression about how they connect, at odds with Rees’ criteria that ‘If the poet understands that they are part of dynamic systems in a living world […] we can understand that these interactions produce the poem’. How do these people and their lives interact, both with each other and the poetic work? Though the lyric ‘I’ is not present in ‘Dusk Town’, the poet-observer is very much at the wheel; this is not a flaw by any means, but I found myself searching for a motivating engine behind the poem, some argument or statement about contemporary life on Merseyside.
In a Radio 4 interview Rees argues in favour of poetry that has ‘something for everyone’; though a genuinely positive stance and one I very much advocate, the question of who exactly has the means and/or motivation to access the work is not quite addressed; that ‘everyone’ elides vital experiential differences as much as it reaches for common ground. I understand Rees’ impulse towards inclusion and refraining from political editorial, but many of these poems deploy individual human lives on a surface level only, as interesting visual artefacts on a par with any other in the poem; it feels like a missed opportunity for the local poet to gloss over so many of the precise circumstances of its protagonists, the uniqueness that makes one’s specific location so important to begin with.
It might be ungenerous to spend so much time on a short prose piece in the middle of two works of poetry, however. The ‘Arne’s Progress’ poems in Blood Child show an astute, painterly eye and a flair for outlandish and surprising detail, the poems discussed above show a will to examine important aspects of contemporary life. Blood Child and Riverine are engaging, imaginative texts that demonstrate a great love and respect for their folkloric sources, and are a thought-provoking read.
Dave Coates is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, writing on Louis MacNeice and contemporary Northern Irish poetry. He writes poetry criticism at davepoems.wordpress.com, which won the 2015 Saboteur Award for Best Reviewer.