“caught in life and brushed with death”

If This Were Real, Gerda Stevenson, Smokestack Books, £7.95
reviewed by Gregory Leadbetter

if_this_were_realThere’s a poem here that brought me to a stop. In ‘Co-Op Funeral Parlour’, the speaker contemplates her own child, as the infant lies in a coffin:

your head in my palm yesterday,
skull barely masked by paper skin,
you were undeniably mine.
An imposter lies in this small white box
we ordered – a collector’s doll,
lace-framed face mounted
on a slice of shop-window silk.

I would quote it all if space allowed. The poem’s vertiginous emotional charge is achieved by the unflinching control of the language in the face of intimate, inscrutable devastation – as if daring itself to find the image, and let that image do its dark work. This fine poem feels like the hinge of a collection – despite its concerns with war and politics – frankly autobiographical in basis. The book is filled with the correlations of yearning and nostalgia, loss and hope, a sense of being caught in life and brushed with death. It is unapologetically personal; the mental states it cycles through all clear.

The virtues of If This Were Real will also be its faults. It does not give the impression of being terribly concerned with finding the leading edge of contemporary poetry – which may not matter, but which may have something to do with the feel the poems sometimes have of being gifts for friends and relatives. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive: this poet’s acknowledgement of her interconnectedness with other people is also attractive, but there is often a lingering sense that a memory, say, which a poem might address, is left more alive for the poet than the poem is for the reader.

The poem ‘First Love’ (alas!) is one such piece: it does not quite make it past the personal and into something more. The reader arrives at the poem’s final lines, when the lovers “foot it back, home to the hills/ in the frosted air” with the belief that this was a special time for the two concerned – but not enough has been done to give the reader an imaginative experience independent of the event in which the poem has its origin.

On a related point, too many verses don’t quite earn their keep. As an opening line, “On a mellow spring morning” leaves an awful lot for the rest of the poem to do – which it might just have achieved but for the final line: “in the bright sunshine of another year” (‘Passing Through’). There is simply not enough happening in the language here for it to hold the attention, as poetry. Imagery and rhythm occasionally fold flat into something that sounds like cliché: “His eyes hold the tale he/ has to tell, cinnamon eyes,/ and a smile spiced with loss” (‘Asylum Seeker’).

Thankfully, there is much here that retains the advantages and sidesteps the dangers of Stevenson’s idiom – as when “your white face rises over the ridge,/ small moon cradled in low-slung boughs,/ and my love rises at the gift of you” (‘Child in the Woods’).

If This Were Real puts me in mind of a personal exhibition of watercolours, as opposed to a Turner-esque blaze of being. Nevertheless, the collection has something of a quest about it – of a homeopathic, self-healing process, and the desire to pass on something of that process to its readers. Its animating, pervasive feeling is akin to unaffected human kindness – and of resilience in remaining open to experience. Two lines from the collection’s final poem capture something essential to its character: “Still a fillet of sunlight on the brow above,/ my goal to be splashed by those rays” (‘Beyond Fairliehope’).

The best poems here – like ‘Co-Op Funeral Parlour’, with which I’m still light-headed – fuse figurative and emotional life to haunting effect. It will be interesting to see which directions Stevenson takes from here on.

Gregory Leadbetter
www.gregoryleadbetter.blogspot.co.uk

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