“even the sea is thirsty”

A Choir of Ghosts, Janette Ayachi, Calder Wood Press, £4.50
reviewed by Pippa Little

choir of ghosts
“But the compound of life is porous…” [‘The Campbell Sisters’], porous and thirsty: these poems don’t flinch from desire and need, they reach out and grasp their world in all its damaged glory. Janette Ayachi creates a rich atmosphere, sensual and heightened, almost turn-of-the-century in its opulence as she crosses time and space from Venice to Dieppe, Vermeer to Ward Eight in poems of grief and remembrance. “I dress for the night, she is hungry for me” [‘Room in Glasgow’]: the night is part spirit world in which “fog rises like cigar smoke” [‘Seascape’], and in part where mysteries emerge as if darkness paradoxically exposes the hidden elements of life to new scrutiny.

There are some lovely poems: ‘Watching the World With August Sander’ intrigues me with its slanted evocation of what it is to be a poet or even seer, someone-who-sees, while the ekphrastic poems suit Janette Ayachi’s theatrical and painterly style very well. There is a strong sense of a young poet flexing her linguistic muscles and exerting her considerable gifts. The plainer, less adorned poems such as ‘Hiatus’ and ‘Clouds from Marseilles to Annaba’ (this latter being my favourite in the collection) signal another possible path: it will be interesting to see how the writing develops. I think Janette Ayachi might find in future collections that her original and striking vision may not need so many overtly ‘poetic’ words, for example the repeated ‘nocturne’ and ‘canto’, or ‘crepuscular’, ‘glissando’. Having said that, I appreciate that Janette Ayachi is well-known as an accomplished performer of her work and so the dramatic quality of these poems may come across differently when spoken than on the page.

“Gondolas sail their selfish smiles in circles” [‘Veins of Venice’] is fantastic: so too is “The sea froths like an old mouth” [‘Seascape’] and there are many other delights. ‘Slick Valkyrie’ remakes a family story into a chilling and resonant myth and ‘Hessian Lungs’ evokes more than illness. The opening poem sets out the time-shifting, supernaturally-infused landscapes explored further on and finishes with a memorable expression of longing:

…because in a blink it is only scent that remains
and tonight darling even the sea is thirsty.

[‘Passing Places’]

and the collection finishes on a note of celebration where two daughters play under the abstracted view of their mother, “shins swiped with pollen” [‘Lavender Gardens’].

This is an imaginative and big-hearted debut and I’ll look forward to reading her next book with great curiosity. I hope that the next collection will have fewer typos and errors in punctuation, though – these can really distract the reader from the power and sparkle of the writing.

Pippa Little

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