Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Harvest  — Sister Mary Agnes

Photo shows a little pile of booklets lying with the spine towards the reader: all copies of Sister Mary Agnes's Harvest. You can see it is white and that there is no lettering on the front cover, only a black circle with a red line through the middle.With images by Garry Fabian Miller
Guillemot Press, 2016   £8.00

Meditative? Quiet?

This little book/pamphlet is a beautiful object. It has a spine, a simple and powerful cover image of a black circle bisected by a horizontal red line like a burning horizon. Then black endpapers, and more illustrative pages throughout. There are four black illustrative pages in the middle: they are glossy and they shine. So the publication is visually and tangibly striking.

And it’s a book with a story. The poet, the late Sister Mary Agnes, spent ‘thirty years cloistered on Exmoor’. Then she ‘fell in love, then despair. Her subsequent breakdown, suicide attempt and recovery are recorded in her quiet meditative verse.’

The text is certainly thoughtful, certainly thinking. But ‘quiet’? Not the adjective I would instinctively have chosen. The words are as arresting as the visual images. To me, they are loud:

God, you are bruise-silent,
swollen, cruelly still.
You switch on lights
            in larkspur
but fill people
with a stuffed night.

The anguished outcry struck me more forcibly than a sense of recovery, though it’s certainly there in the final poems. I’m less convinced by the echo of George Herbert at the end (‘Can it be / I have emerged, appeared / who lay in the dark so long?’) than by the blunt expression of despair earlier:

Who cares for birds of the air –
let me hear
an answer to my plea,
which is a wound – which is me.

I am not sure the poet has consistent control of line and form. There’s a touch of Emily Dickinson (as above), but more frequently, the work defaults to a freer, looser expression that mingles metaphor a little too obviously (sun ‘smiles’, shadows ‘break’, scars ‘remain’ and ‘stain a new day’).

But I am wholly persuaded by the purity of a couple of the lyrics, where form and feeling combine beautifully – ‘Glass Moon’ may be my favourite, and although this poem does seem quite quiet, the last three lines strike me as somehow huge and loud, in a way I can’t explain:

To arrive
I slide
over the moon.

I’m reminded of Stevie Smith: ‘All poetry has to do is make a strong communication.’ These poems do just that.

Helena Nelson