Michael Bartholomew-Biggs takes in Deborah Tyler-Bennett’s poetic impressions of a residency at Keats House
ISBN 978 1 907356 90 2
Deborah Tyler-Bennett is having a busy year. Having just published a volume of short stories, Turned Out Nice Again (reviewed recently on London Grip), she now has a new poetry collection Kinda Keats which is based on a three-month residency at Keats House in Hampstead during the summer of 2010.
This thoughtfully put-together collection concerns itself with objects and artefacts – including the house and its furnishings – as much as with Keats himself and his poetry. The first two poems are about articles intimately connected with Keats, his death mask and his ‘magic’ coat, which both become, in Tyler-Bennett’s imagination, organic and almost animated. On the coat, Buttons blink from acorns to ducks’ eyes / to spangled poppy heads, their troubled dreaming; and the portrait of the mask concludes by showing us a Merman face – lined mouth / sea-holly’s interlacing veins.
Tyler-Bennett goes on to give a good deal of attention to the house, both from the viewpoint of someone outside looking in and in the place of someone inside looking out. In ‘Keats Grove Ode I’ she recreates one of Keats’ own documented experiences, observing and recording people passing by along the street on a sunny afternoon. One wonders whether Keats himself ever saw anything as delightful as
this walnut fisted , buggied toddler;
baby in bee-stripes, bumbling across lawns.
Windows figure strongly, sometimes framing views of the garden where the trees have leaves reflecting velvety as parlour curtains and sometimes allowing outsiders a limited glimpse of rooms with beaming faces, their interior candles.
Many of the poems establish links with Keats through the furnishings of his house. By his bed, in the pen-and-wash light of this slight room, she recalls Severn’s death-bed sketch; and beside the sofa, on which he spent much time resting, she imagines the invalid Keats waiting single sight of Fanny Brawne / from ‘pleasant prison’.
A grimmer sight, and a prison of another kind, occurs in ‘Still Life With Radical Spirits’. This poem is one of several which refer to other artists and literary figures of Keats’ time. It begins by imagining Keats playing cards with the artists Benjamin Haydon and Joseph Severn and as we watch them lay down rouged hearts, jet aces, lacy jacks we learn that another friend, the essayist Leigh Hunt, has been imprisoned for a written attack on the Prince Regent. While in gaol, Leigh Hunt is taken up on the roof with a promised view of fields and finds himself instead witnessing an execution.
As well as introducing us to figures from Keats’ own time, Tyler-Bennett also weaves people from the present day into the collection. The book’s title poem draws on a brief sighting of the musician Ray Davies at a local café and the cover design recalls the quasi-regency style ruffled shirts he wore on stage as part of The Kinks. And while writing about Keats reclining on his sofa bed she also tells us she can hear in a nearby bar Van Morrison’s / thrawn gravel vocals, song of love and hurt. She also mentions that two of the pieces arose out of young people’s workshops held in Keats House and that certain phrases in other poems were suggested by conversations with a taxi driver and some of the cleaning staff.
These then are some of the inventive ways that Tyler-Bennett has chosen to make use of her experiences a poet-in-residence. What of the poems themselves? Many of them display a quite distinctive poetic voice, one that prunes away words until the result is almost like shorthand notes. Staccato verbs and nouns – often devoid of definite or indefinite articles – convey quickly-observed impressions, as in ‘Briefest Encounters’ which sets the scene with
Poet on sabre-legged seat
Screws up paper, throws
‘Two Masks’ opens even more breathlessly:
gasped life, surest death,
or, if cliché,
one rubbed coin’s sides.
There is a sense of urgency in such abbreviated lines which is sometimes accentuated by a fondness for superlatives. We have already mentioned briefest encounters and surest death; and elsewhere we learn that getting lost on wildest heath is not just a possibility but a distinctest possibility. Similarly, when the poet stretches out a hand it has to be his tenderest hand. It must be said that Tyler-Bennett’s particular mixture of energy and compression does take some getting used to. But, at its best, it enables her to build up dense impressions very economically – so long as the reader sits back and lets it happen rather than trying to unpack the syntax!
Of course the poems are not all written in the same way and some of the best passages in the book are gentler and more lyrical. Two fine examples are these delicate laments for a talent that was confined to a shortened life:
This lovely world comes at a grim fixed-price,
left poems and letters always point that way,
under conservatory roofs a cabbage white
batters its frayed wings against unyielding glass.
[‘Keats Grove Ode II’]
Did Keats see his life circling like pictures in a zoetrope
as he lay perspiring? Perhaps his last ship’s darkened cabin,
fretful faces, jig of words from poems he’d never write.
. [‘On Looking Into a Picture of Keats’s Death Mask’]
These lines are worthy of the place that inspired them.