“a nest of crocks”

Scrimshaw, Jean Watkins, Two Rivers Press, £7.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

Collecting and making decorative objects is a recurring theme, as would be expected from the title, Scrimshaw, named after carvings made by sailors on tusks, bones, shells or whatever was to hand, and brought home as souvenirs. ‘Glass’ explains how Jean Watkins began collecting antique glassware,

riffling through coats in Oxfam.
A slat of sun just caught it, made me go
over to the bric-a-brac shelves although
I knew nothing of glass. I liked its weight,
its clunkiness, the barley sugar coil
inside the stem. The way it swells
to a cone-shaped cup in perfect balance
with the foot. It felt right in my hand.
Of course it led to libraries, the V&A,
a change to Fine Art and you know the rest.
I still remember plastic hangers clicking,
a smell of mothballs just before I saw it.

I would have preferred the focus to remain with the contrast between the valued glass and its impoverished surroundings in a charity shop. The drift away to libraries and Fine Art feels unnecessary. The detail of the glass itself is far more heightened, sensual and poetic without being overtly so.

Most of these poems are free verse with one verbal mirror poem and one sonnet that follows the Thames through history from a foul waste cesspool to clean wildlife haven. Jean Watkins’ interest in nature comes through in other poems too, e.g. ‘Shinglebacks’ who are lizards who mate for life,

And when in a roaring cloud of dust a truck wheel
runs over a lazy lizard, which happens often,
its mate will stay for hours by the corpse,
nudging it gently, waiting for life to resume.

The alliterative cliché should have been cut: reptiles aren’t lazy anyway, they can’t move if their blood isn’t sufficiently warm. I’m not convinced the mate can be “waiting for life to resume” either and the line could be cut because the previous line shows what’s happening and doesn’t need an explanation. There is a great subject for a poem here, but this poem isn’t doing it justice.

I wanted more poems like this one, ‘Teacup’

I dig over heavy clay soil,
Earthworms siphoning themselves away,
my spade clinks of a nest of crocks:
china like shark fins; once a cup,
fluted, gilt-edged, painted with tulips

Imagine the artist leaning to her work,
her small round spectacles and apron
daubed with paint. The brush’s flame
igniting petals in a cold workroom
at Hanley, Burslem or Stoke-on-Trent.

And a young man’s too large fingers
clutching the curved and pointed handle
of the teacup, hers crumpling the corner
of her embroidered napkin, her parents
clawing sugar cubes with their silver tongs.

How in 1917 the cup slipped
from the daughter’s sudsy hands,
cracked into five pieces, while he
lurched over mud, was ruptured
by a shell, buried in clay heavy soil.

It’s focused, it conveys a satisfying image of the cup’s journey from manufacture to ending up as broken crockery in a garden and epitomises what Scrimshaw is about.

Emma Lee

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