Reviewed by Jake Campbell, Matt Merritt and Fiona Moore
Lydia Fulleylove’s Notes on Sea and Land is aptly titled: it seems the characters in these poems live in a perpetual state of first-draft, of not quite knowing themselves. In most cases, this sense of incompletion is to Fulleylove’s credit. The themes are eternal—grief, detachment, the need for solace—but they are portrayed in such an understated manner that it’s difficult not to feel empathy. In ‘Where there is no gravity’, Fulleylove utilises the conceit of a loss of gravity to encapsulate the trauma associated with living with—or without—such everyday burdens: “electricity cannot be earthed”, she writes; “there’s no difference/ between a light and heavy heart”.
The best poems in this collection are rooted in glimpses of (in)action. In ‘Night Drive’, the discord between the urge to do something and the knowledge that fate is often not on one’s side is brought powerfully to life: “though all the time I was thinking/ of my mother, the bones stretching/ her beautiful skin”. The use of enjambment here really drives home the pertinence of that image of the frail mother, lending the poem a sense of immediacy, of which the reader instantly becomes a part.
I was slightly underwhelmed by some poems in this collection, wanting certain lines to be spared so that some of the poems might begin at more pressing stages in their narrative. In the fantastically titled ‘Devastation Hill’, for example, I’m not certain the first stanza, with its somewhat banal details— “grey July”; “Your back is hurt” —is actually necessary. Had the poem started with the first line of the second stanza, “We meet a man who’s desperate to know”, I would have felt more comfortable when we are later told “you simply gave him what he needed”. Instead, and this happens in a few other places, I felt stock phrases often acted as hurdles to the poems’ otherwise charged pace.
That said, these are minor, personal concerns in what is an otherwise hauntingly spare collection. I use ‘spare’ as praise here, because it is the lack of over-arching sureness and the comfort in gritty details in poems like ‘Echo Wing’, where a prisoner is “tasting/ the salt still on her skin”, that allows these lives to linger, uncertain yet brave in our minds.
I’ve seen reviewers bemoan the fact that the sea is a near-constant presence in mainstream contemporary British poetry, but while it’s never far from Lydia Fulleylove’s thoughts in this, her début chapbook, she uses it rather intriguingly.
For a start, it’s often there as a symbol of escape, in stark opposition to her other main motif: prisons, both the bricks and mortar kind and those of the mind and human relationships.
While that’s probably most obvious in a poem such as ‘The prison and the sea’, in which a prisoner begs to be allowed to keep a piece of driftwood, it’s far less explicitly, but no less effectively, stated in ‘Winter walk’, which simply lays out the Isle of Wight landscape for the reader without comment.
the ridge the thrown
flints the startled
hare the twisted roots
the scuffed earth the unshelter
of sloe the sea-slip
the swerve of coast the ship
on the horizon the distant hail
of Durlston the boomerang
of gaze near
far near far
the wind the salt
For me, that works beautifully. Not only does it feel as if Fulleylove is jotting down impressions on the move, but it also opens out the flipside of her maritime concerns—on an island, there’s no getting away from the sea, and it’s as much prison guard as escape route.
Estuary does that in-the-moment trick well too, with the landscape remaking itself as she writes (“Since I last looked/ grey stones have slipped/ below green waves”), as does the excellent title poem.
Occasionally, Fulleylove writes about the personal in much more straightforward terms, and if ‘Devastation Hill’ and ‘Swimming at Prades’ felt like they were trying a bit too hard, ‘Night drive’ returns to her strengths, describing a drive to visit her dying mother with exactly the same immediacy she brings to her landscape poems. It’s a powerful end to a highly individual first collection—I’ll look forward to reading more from her.
I read the last poem ‘Night drive’ first, and within two lines knew what it was about. The layout, with alternate lines indented, the strong enjambment and focus on small details convey the disorientation and dread felt when someone is dying. The winding form also matches the “twisting lanes” driven down, and combines with mostly plain language, short words and tight syntax to give a sense of urgency. I’ll quote the beginning, because I don’t want to spoil the experience of reading the whole:
So when the phone call came, saying
....that we should go back tonight, we were barely
surprised, we might have been waiting
....for it all our lives. We took two cars in case
it did not happen that night . . .
Do the of the poems live up to this striking piece? Many could be described as Notes on Sea and Land, and contain observations on what it’s like to live both in and alongside nature. This is difficult to carry off in an age where it’s unfashionable, but language and varied form come fluidly together, and the tone is lyrical while also teasing, riddling. Fulleylove is especially good at the body moving or static in a landscape. In the title poem, assonance and the slight syntactical oddness of “or . . . can’t” makes the reader feel a bit dizzy:
Where cliff path ends
and feet begin
is hard to say
or which is sea
and which is me
can’t be unstitched.
Other sea poems have a similarly kinaesthetic effect, as do several about uncertainties in relationships. A couple of pieces are perhaps more conventional, including the opening poem ‘The chest’, though this is beautifully described and maybe earns its place because it mirrors ‘Night drive’ at the end.
Fulleylove has been a prison writer-in-residence. In ‘Echo Wing’, she shows she can do indoors too. A woman is waiting for a male prisoner in the visitors’ room:
She’s sticking to the edge of
her orange chair tethered to a table
low enough to bark her shins
and she’s staying calm by calling
on the undertow of morning . . .
But the edge of land and sea seems to be her home. The poems are like things the sea throws up onto the beach all week, in ‘Gifts’:
Thursday, she robs a fishing boat, a black
net; throws in a catch of bladderwrack.