Martin Noutch admires Lynne Wycherley’s masterly grasp of light in its many aspects

 

Listening to Lightwycherley
Lynne Wycherly
Shoestring Press
ISBN: 978 1 907356 76 6
£12.50

 

I’ve been reading Lynne Wycherley’s New and Selected Poems for several weeks.  The collection is far too big to hurry – it contains over a hundred pieces written over more than fifteen years – and anyway, the breadth of subjects and landscapes the poet travels demands a regular breather.  Rushing through them all – almost every line – is the transcendence of light, expressing emptiness, grief, hope, ambiguity, loneliness, warmth, life-force, distance, proximity and anything else that Wycherley wants it to.  She is a specialist, but rather than boast in her theme or verse form, she possesses a closeness with one great metaphor that she seems to have tamed to complete obedience.  Here, at the end of ‘Winter Trees’, she creates the fragile light of an infant winter dawn:

Dear trees,
yours is the first inscription
and the last.  The whittled sky
recedes; returns.  Faint
emanations of coral, fawn,
cradled in the uplift of your arms.

One of the greatest pleasures of reading this poetry is the intensely visual experience it conjures in the mind’s eye.  I’m struck by the affinity of her writing to landscape painting – something that seems to be beneath the surface of the poet’s own consciousness in the choice of subjects  (seascapes, moors, lighthouses, fen fields ) and occasionally breaks through into overt metaphor, such as in ‘Stepping Stones to the Infinite’:

Can one curved mile contain it,
The lull and the storm?
Now sun, now noire de fume?
I’ll paint at speed,
antitheses inside me,
shadows and scintilae –

Her search for clarity and original phrasing depends upon a very specific language of colour – the Lithium-white of the lighthouse, the ash-blond / pate of the sun, her mother’s eyes brown-marcasite, / a deep liqueur.  This rich diet we’re offered as readers is surely the result of the poet’s love of the words themselves – the sound of them, and the feel in the mouth, as well as their power to bring past things to life or to light.  Latent within all these descriptions and evocations are discoveries – of past people, family, strangers, characters real and imagined, of emotions long past or thought extinguished.  One of my favourite pieces would have to be the beguilingly simple ‘Girl on a Shore’, remembering the hunger of a young self, anxious and keen to create beauty in words, standing at the edge of the sea.  But as we watch the poet wrest a word-picture from an empty beach – a cold horizon – a more lasting idea emerges…

Wait says the wind,
life has a crab-crawl rhythm here,

the storm-bent heather
grows slowly, its carillon

burnished by the sun;
yet on this shore, this salt-tongued page,

I’m a young girl again
impatient for words, like love.

The rush into the present when the complex language drops away in the final two lines and the little adverb again that slips into lyrics and verse as a filler both bring the poem sharply into focus: we gain the image of the mature woman revisiting a hallowed spot, remembering the emotion that once filled it – an emotion that can only be compared to love itself.  The ambiguity of the relationship of the final phrase leaves the reader out.  Was the feeling of impatience the feeling like love, or was she impatience to love and be loved as strongly as she longed to express the beauty she found on the beach?  Could she tell the difference, as a girl?  Can the poet now?  I think these questions are all unanswerable but entirely latent within the few simple lines.

If Lynne Wycherley is a visual poet, then, she is also a visionary one, who would like to communicate something powerful for our own personal response even at the same time as being specifically descriptive as in ‘Footpath with Grey Heron’, the penultimate poem in the book.

The snap of a twig:
slow-motion he breaks
his great shape from the shadows
to carve cold heartbeats over the trees –

systoles of sky
bearing my thoughts and the dusk away.

It isn’t terribly active poetry.  There is development, motion, movement, but it is so very rarely fast.  This is by no means a bad thing, simply another facet of the specialism the poet has found for herself.  While light is instant, our reflections on it are not.  Her pictures of stillness, peace and meditation largely arrive in verbless concatenations of thought like this, from ‘Skyline with Chimney’:

Through sunlight, leaves, a glimpse of
disused stacks.  Unspoken links
phonetic in my blood.  A world adrift
in corpuscles, red bricks.  Still carried
on a working man’s bent back.

Where there are no limited verbs, no time can pass, and although the passage of time does feature in many of these poems, it always happens out of sight.  At the end of the book comes the last of several responses to the death of the poet’s father, and even in death, light dominates.  She identifies herself as a daughter of fenland skies – and the landscapes and skyscapes of openness and space have become the scene for her dominating emotions – or at least, those feelings about which she writes.  The emptied bed, / white sheets aching with sunlight are another almost unbearable assault of reflected light in emptiness – here, where her father might have lain.  Yet no time seems to pass for the spirits of the dead – your back receding is another continuous verb, unlimited, unending.  The poet, watching the eternal passage of her father into the river or the shadows, has to come to a surprising conclusion: I still can’t see the far shore.  For a while, darkness seems to have won after all.  But wait a moment longer, and even in the death-dark of the black night, pinpoints appear – the same pinpoints that have dazzled the poet and the reader all the way through the collection – only now, we are a little further from them.  Look closely!

I still can’t see the far shore,
only your back receding.
Meteors hatching.
The night’s slow current
running past your shins

as you wade irretrievably
through the stars.