Reviewed by Hilary Menos, Nick Asbury and Gina Wilson
Earthworks comes from the recently established Stonewood Press which is based in Oundle and currently has just four books to its name. If this chapbook is anything to go by, the production values are high — it is neat, pocket-sized and nicely presented, with an attractive white-on-grey cover design.
Gabbitas delivers poems to match. They are, in the main, considered, conversational and approachable. She shows a fine understanding of technique, and great control. ‘Bird Buried’ deals with the business of burying a dead bird before delving into the real business of words:
this is a garden, so ground is soil.
And beneath this brick
is a passing place where soil
becomes earth because of death.
The poem is plain and strong, rings like a bell, and ends beautifully:
and in the treeline the sparrows sing,
their lungs small, almost bursting.
At other times I feel Gabbitas strives too hard for effect. In ‘Deer Shelter’ she writes about a piece of sculpture in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and refers to the story of St Giles and the deer. The poem is in tercets, but also has one longer single line — “The meat of the deer’s leaner than that of the lamb” — after the second tercet and repeated again at the end. I don’t see how this fits with the rest of the poem, or adds to it, beyond injecting a rather heavy-handed dollop of portentousness. It’s a shame, because the poem works well without it. She does it again in ‘In Principio’, where she closes with, “when your body hit the cremation fire/ what happened? Did they both release a hiss;/ one of welcome, one of goodbye?” Here, and elsewhere, there’s a bit too much spelling out and not quite enough letting us readers work it out for ourselves.
The title, Earthworks, the cover/flyleaf art and the opening poem, ‘Overlaid’, all stake a claim to some kind of earthy theme and the quote on the back promises us a sequence of poems that “cuts into the earth beneath the thin layer of soil to articulate a voice that knots life to death”. Apart from not understanding what knotting life to death might entail, I’m not wholly convinced that Gabbitas’s heart really lies with this theme. I think she’s more interested in language than anything else and it’s here that her strengths show. She revels in double meanings, in things with odd names, and in the various places words take you, unbidden. She has a couple of ‘dialect’ poems which I found remarkably good, but best of all is ‘Lappen’ — the German for flannel — a corker of a poem showing off her vivid imagination, sureness of touch and real flair:
Oh, a rag, a cloth, a scrap, a sop
for history and words, a wipe
for dust and soap — it's not a flannel
[ . . .]
We called it
flannel, but Lappen is truer; if we’d had it
we would have used the word.
The first thing to say is that this collection scores high on ‘coherence’. From the title to the cover artwork and illustrated endpapers, this nicely produced chapbook is immersed in earthy matter. Almost every poem contains some reference to clay, soil, stone, flint, peat, fossils, diamonds, bones.
It’s not an unfamiliar subject for poetry and for language in general – I’m self-consciously trying to avoid earth metaphors while writing this. But I was ultimately left wondering how much ‘new’ had been discovered. While I enjoyed many of the poems, there was a sense of familiar material was being explored in a familiar way – using language that felt too conventionally ‘poetic’ in places.
This is the opening to ‘Water Caltrop’:
Eat of it. Peel its newly boiled skin and eat and do well.
Do not consume it raw for it carries the fluke. Thin worm.
Worm with teeth. This caltrop is waternut, its shell
black, striated and dazzling in this light, this autumn.
The voice here is consciously heightened, but I couldn’t work out to what end. Constructions like “Eat of it”, words like “striated” and the closing repetition of “this light, this autumn” felt a bit sonorous to me and distanced me from what is being described.
But the best parts of this collection manage to achieve that state where the language and the subject matter become one. In the opening poem ‘Overlaid’, the sound the words make is wonderfully sticky and earthy:
There were bones, cast off shells,
and nothing familiar
until beetles – chitin sticking in my teeth,
shellac, shellac too.
As you speak “chitin sticking” aloud, you can feel the consonants sticking between your teeth. There’s also some earthy dialect here. ‘Wood & stone’ is one of a couple of poems that convey a certain northern gruffness. It begins:
I’ll wock in wood, then, an’ steown. I’ll know
this that’s ’ard’ll be med soft, redooced
to shavin’s o’ alabaster and a thin, fine core.
I found the rendering of dialect problematic – it sometimes leads to a proliferation of apostrophes which, as well as being visually distracting, somehow have the opposite effect to the one intended, distancing you from the voice by reminding you of its ‘incorrectness’. This is more of a problem generally with dialect poems, which always have to occupy a halfway house between conventional and phonetic spelling, but I felt I’d seen it done more convincingly elsewhere.
That said, the use of dialogue is a signal of the poet’s wider intention to use language in a way that feels physical and visceral, which is the overriding strength of this collection. Having spent a while flicking through its pages, you almost expect to find dirt under your fingernails.
In Earthworks, Jacqueline Gabbitas delves into earth and soul, finding each in each. It’s an attractive pocket-sized volume with smooth grey covers bearing Martin Parker’s patterned design of earth’s layers (what lies beneath the surface, and what bursts through). These are the layers Gabbitas introduces in her first poem, ‘Overlaid’, delighting in specialised vocabulary.
Above soil level, she takes us on explorations of nature. In ‘Damflask’, we find ‘‘chub’’, ‘‘pike’’, ‘‘heron’’, ‘‘horseshoe bats’’, creatures nurtured by the reservoir, as well as learning of the water’s shocking destructive power:
But the level of water alarmed us – they call it
hochwasser in Germany as if it’s a holy thing.
Nests in the embanked trees were almost pike food,
and anything below them crazed. Broken.
This theme of the earth’s power both to heal and destroy (often expressed with a sense of urgency) recurs throughout, along with a fascination with meetings of life and death, and elemental change. As well as in earth and water, Gabbitas rejoices in fire, her language burning in ‘Handfast Fire’ (where the shape of the poem on the page (especially when held sideways) leaps like the flames themselves), and ‘April End (Beltane)’.
She has the gift of building powerful visual images, as in the evocative and moving ‘The Padfield Horse’. Her enjoyment of language, playing with meanings (‘Lappen’), poetic form (‘High Hills’), and dialect (‘I’ve no soul to tell you on’, and ‘Wood & Stone’) is infectious.
The pamphlet is a celebration of earth and all it holds. Her closing poem, ‘Stigmaria’, describing a fossilised root, seals its warmth and generosity:
It’s there always, a kind of reassurance,
this beautiful grey root. It will be lifted,
dusted, placed back with love, a history
of love, a simple needing of its presence,
and looked at everyday.