“a dark world, alive with sound and glitter”

She Inserts the Key, Marianne Burton, Seren 2013, £8-99
reviewed by Judith Taylor

she_inserts_the_keyAlthough billed as “a collection of voices”, She Inserts the Key leaves a powerfully unified impression, largely thanks to the care with which it is structured. A (mainly) secular litany of sonnets, ‘Meditations on the Hours’, runs through it, and the poems between often relate, directly or obliquely, to them. But the pattern isn’t obtrusive and there is a plenty of variety in form and content, coupled with an unshowy command of language and a clear-eyed, sometimes bracingly disillusioned, sensibility.

‘Owls at Midnight’, for instance, begins in low key, as the speaker wakes her daughter to watch “two owls talking to one another”. It intensifies, describing them:

Each time the far one calls, the near one
elongates and whistles like a steam train ;
then, in the answering silence, he trembles
his whole body, waiting…

then returns us to earth, as the child (and her father: “‘I told you she wouldn’t care’, he says”) fail to be delighted. In the following sonnet, ‘Midnight: Hallaton: Before the Storm’, the “owl-stirred blackness” is more threatening and unstable. And later comes a lighter counterpoint, ‘5pm: Stoneleigh: The Lie of the Pool’, whose teenage speaker declines to humour her artist mother:

It was the school pool, mother, I would say,
Ugly, noisy, with heel plasters in the water.

But she, rinsing out my costume
saw the barnacled undersides of whales…

Where a sequence starts and ends is crucial, and Burton’s hours run from midnight to midnight. Hallaton is established early as a main setting: a place of often uncomfortable domesticity where the sheets are

… not embroidered
with rose or gorse.
Not new, not ironed.
Just creased, coarse

cheap store cotton
for the night tomb
[‘Changing the Sheets’]

As the hours reach daylight the scenery becomes more various, sometimes fantastical, sometimes brighter. But the prevailing sense is of a dark world, alive with sound and glitter, where human safety is precarious.

Good on landscape, Burton is also alert to the artificial – the title poem, for instance, puts adult spin on The Emperor and the Nightingale – and this is one of several ways in which she reminded me of the Jacobeans. Her range of reference is broad, often with a scientific slant. But there is a religious awareness too, in poems like ‘Lacrimae rerum‘ and ‘3pm: The Ninth Hour, Calvary’. And alongside bleak wit there is compassion, for the powerless, the unhappy, the left-behind, culminating in the Calvary sonnet

[f]or those who sit at the foot of a cross.
For those who suffer in the dark.

For those who have marked in their diary
the hour when, for them, a heart stopped.

Occasionally I felt she over-reaches – ‘The Devil’s Cut’, with its abrupt shifts of viewpoint, makes an argument but for me doesn’t cohere as a poem; and when ‘2pm: Summer crossing to Iona’, began “You should come here in winter, through rough water” it seemed almost predictable. But this is a terrific collection overall, and I look forward to more from its author.

Judith Taylor

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