Nine Arches Press, 2010 £5.00
Reviewed by Kirsten Irving, Rory Waterman and Emma Lee
I wish, given the slender space on the back of pamphlets, publishers would hold off on using bland phrases like “measured yet generous” to describe the poetry within. How on earth that sells a collection I don’t know. Gripe over. Nine Arches have done their usual beautiful job on the production of Myra’s Connell’s From The Boat: the grainy, tactile pebble-tone cover, clean presentation and parcel-paper inner sheet are immediately attractive and mark the series apart.
Let’s go inside. An untitled poem, or part-poem begins (a linked piece or the other half appears at the end) the collection, asking you “Are you waiting for the dawn?” and describes “the walnut shell, the matchstick mast and paper sail” that will carry an isolated sailor on. It’s like meeting your guide or mentor at the start of a strange quest.
The energy of the poetry that follows is really remarkable. Manifested variously as fear (of rape and conspiracy in ‘Women on the Train’, being lost and alone in ‘The sky is here so blue’), brassy sexuality (in two pieces from the point of view of Egon Schiele’s models) and concern (“Come on, the rule, the rule! The rule for shock and hospital!”), it rarely lets you drift off. That’s not to say the pace is relentless. Rather, Connell is good at capturing the movements of an excitable speaker and shading around the cause of the unrest, like the aforementioned guide urging you to be quiet because there are enemies abroad.
The theme of maintaining appearances despite inner conflict merits a great deal of examination, but ‘Lost’, ‘Do something jaunty’ and ‘Women on the train’ tilt at the idea from the same horse, each time featuring a central character telling themselves to remain cheerful and polite. While this conjures the inner solitude hinted at by the pamphlet’s title, it also suggests a touch of filler. The number of poems that open with a repetition of their own title is also a distracting feature, and I can’t help but wonder if the title was an afterthought in quite a few cases.
That said, the collection as a whole balances insolence and charm nicely. The tough, brash girls in ‘Crouching Woman’ and ‘Squatting Woman with Boots (undated)’, who cry “Ha!” and promise “One fierce eye/for twenty groschen” are splendidly aware of the nature of their exchange with the artist and, for all the raciness of the lifted petticoats and flashed arseholes, seem completely in control. Connell manages to snag the personalities and physical presences of the models quickly and completely, reinstating the individual in each nameless portrait.
‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ illustrates how intricate description works when not used to pad out a poem or inject a ‘poetic’ quality, but to evoke a scene. The emphasis in the piece is the eroticised image of the executioner himself, “the Rafael Nadal”, as observed by the “skinny scrap” of the condemned man and a nun conflicted by her desires. In a moment out of time, an unnamed person’s thoughts (it could be any of the three mentioned characters) flick forward to cars and toboggans skidding on snow, before the final blow lands.
Wherever you open the pamphlet, whether at the increasingly bizarre ‘Restaurant, first night’ or the peaceful, drifting moon-boat of the bookending poem, you’re likely to be drawn in by the restlessness of the voices.
The blurb on the back of From the Boat speaks of “small consolations” and “small poems, the opposite of heroic”—which is, on the whole, apposite. In many of these short verses, Connell seems to be recalling personal moments of insecurity, revelation or connection. From ‘Town, Recession’:
But by the sphinx a man—
he stands, he plays the fiddle, plays the mournful songs;
he yearns for flying and the rainbow.
I have stood here mesmerised, and
someone, sprawling on the step,
his bags all scattered, twists round
From the Boat is the work of a poet keen to share what are ostensibly small and private experiences, and normally happy enough to let those experiences speak for themselves without drawing a clear or more significant meaning from them. This lends itself to poetry that is sensitive, lonely, fragile. Sometimes it is all a bit too much to bear:
Do something jaunty or they’ll see
in those pale lips and sallow face
“The sadness”, indeed. Connell’s honesty is commendable, which is not necessarily the same as interesting.
These are heartfelt little poems; but too many of them are over-sentimental and therefore fall flat, despite occasional flashes of linguistic ingenuity. Certain others simply don’t have enough to say, or don’t say anything clearly enough—victims of their own concision, perhaps. The twenty-four words of ‘Peninsula’ make a sort of quantum leap of sense:
an almost island.
‘Earlswood Garden Centre Café’ is harmlessly observational, in spite of the poet’s attempt to give it an air of foreboding. The speaker has “a raw place in the gut” and is lost, typically on the sidelines looking in at the maelstrom of others’ lives, unnoticed, as “Men are speaking/ weights of topsoil, half a metre cubed, and decking”. All the while, “Black clouds are coming over”—literally and metaphorically, one imagines. But like so many of its companions, the poem ends before we can make anything much of all this.
Myra Connell has a delicate touch allowing the reader space within the poems to read and interpret. But the reader is not abandoned; plenty of clues and description are given and that delicate touch is not fragile. In the first poem, ‘And yes, the house’ where the narrator “loved a stranger in a sycamore wood” and then comes across the house, she finds
It was a white one, on a bank or hill.
Behind the hedge a lawn, but curving;
and steps up to a path. Such blank clean windows.
(What was it that he said? The hope was stupid.)
Such an ugly house, so cold,
so stiff, immaculate, so dark at dusk.
I see the house as a ‘house of the week’ in the ‘for sale’ section of a local newspaper where you admire the elegance but can’t help noticing the lack of touches that turn a house into a home, such as children’s toys hastily tucked in a corner or a book left on a coffee table. The reader wonders, too, who the stranger is and the significance of the reported comment, “the hope was stupid”.
These are poems that welcome and trust the reader and are capable of compassion. Characters are introduced for the reader to empathise with, not to gawp at or to wonder at the poet’s observations. In ‘Town Recession’ a man plays mournful songs on a fiddle while yearning for “flying and the rainbow” in a town that is shamed by its failure, yet he’s able to mesmerise his audience and bring a smile to a tramp’s face.
The poems have a sensual feel too. In ‘The Beheading of St John the Bapist’:
Look how small the courtyard is, how full the swordsman’s body.
How much meat he’s eaten, how much flesh he’s lusted for and had;
how lovelier than John’s, the skinny scrap.
But she’s a saint, in league, a nun, and doesn’t want him. Mustn’t.
She is standing, calm, except perhaps a little more than needed she is
clutching with her hand the long scarf blanket
and her face is pale.
Note how that “mustn’t” undermines the assertion “doesn’t want him”, and how that’s further developed in her clutching and pale face.
Myra Connell’s poems are finely-judged and balanced as she guides the reader, rather than telling them what to think and how to react. I found they rewarded re-reading, allowing me to tease out detail I didn’t pick up first time.