“the door wants you”

Muscovy, Matthew Francis, Faber and Faber, £12.99
reviewed by Russell Jones

muscovy francis
I ought to start this review with a declaration of my prejudice: before reading Muscovy I was already a fan of Francis’ poetry. A year ago I published the book’s opening – and very fine – poem, ‘The Man in the Moon’ (based on Francis Godwin’s story of the same title, in which the narrator flies to the moon using a geese-powered shuttle) in Where Rockets Burn Through, an anthology of contemporary UK sci-fi poems. So, I had high expectations and, happily, Muscovy didn’t disappoint.

This is a playful and diverse book of poems that borrows stories from a variety of sources including myth, science and literature. This is also a collection of journeys: Francis’ narrators are frequently on the move as they meet ghostly figures on night-time vigils or clamber over sheep-laden hilltops. There’s a great sense of place, a dreaminess that is at times reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood: sleepy streets, lulling tides and phantasmal fogs stirring at your ankles. But we are far from mere observers of these myth-melded worlds, rather we are invited to join the expeditions. Take an extract from ‘Familiar Spirit’ for example, in which we sit at the embers of a lonesome fire, when there’s a rap at the door:

and now it’s a social knock, two syllables,
    hallow, shw mar, a neighbour’s upbeat,
       downbeat, doorstepping rhythms
          that just want to take
    a couple of your moments,

and why are you sitting in the reddening
    gaze of the fire when the door wants you

Francis’ use of a direct address to the reader lured me into the story. As with many of these poems, I felt as though I had become an active participant, that I too were a part of the story and community he has undressed. This technique is invoked several times to great effect without it becoming tiresome, and the frequent merger of the real and the unreal led me to consider the nature of perception itself, to ask what role myths, rumours and stories might play in altering my perception of reality.

More abstract poems derail this narrative structure, but seem to be pushing in the same direction by challenging our expectations of poetry and language. I welcome such challenges, and Francis’ attempts are usually hitting the right notes. ‘Macros’, a poem of several parts, shifts our perspective to that of the micro-world:

SAND

There used to be a game,
those chunky polygons
impinging, exploding
on the black screen of space.

Meanwhile ‘Poem in Sea’ is a series of scattered words that span two pages, encouraging the eye to land more organically or haphazardly than usual, through which multiple readings and meanings may flourish:

Saturday
                      early
                                        a
scrambled
                      egg
                                        apricot
sunrise
                      extends
                                        across

‘Enigma Variations’ humorously engages with the notion that written language is merely a system of symbols to which we attach meaning by substituting letters for characters:

b)
%etween %um and %osom,
%um and %alls,
%alls and %osom:
Well-%alanced %odies.

Francis’ approach could be accused of being overly fragmented but this would be missing the point. Just as the different parts of a stained glass window give colour to the sunlight blazing through it, so it is through a breadth of form, landscapes, languages, and experiences that these poetic parts reconstruct to challenge our perception of the whole. Moreover, I was excited to turn the page, and that’s no bad thing.

Russell Jones
http://poetrusselljones.blogspot.co.uk/

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