Emma Lee admires Claire Crowther’s skilful use of appropriately restrictive forms in her poetic homage to silent cinema – and finds also that this pocket-size chapbook is generously packed with images and information.

silents-cover-Silents
Claire Crowther
Hercules Editions https://herculeseditions.wordpress.com/
ISBN 9780957273832
48pp    £10

Claire Crowther uses poetry to explore the world of silent movies. She tells us she was prompted to do so by a recurring dream about speechlessness and by looking at videos on You Tube to find a way of describing passion through facial expression. This provided the inspiration for “Jehanne d’Arc and the Angels of Battle,” where Joan says she was

not touched otherwise except to hear words ransack me. Word was,

soldiers pray to me as if I am what was brought of value.
What I value

inside metal
is, my galvanised skin thinks it’s dominant. Helpless metal.

Crowther uses syllabics to mirror the limitations of expressions without speech and the need for telling a story with few words – the intertitles – which must be sized and shaped by the ease with which they would be read from a screen.

She starts the book by dealing with the physical properties of film, in “The Inflammatory Properties of Celluloid”

Yes, film’s made of light

and the director uses stars to silence race slurs
in intertitles.

If you should come across old film, a star on the edge
warns you that it burns.

Crowther also touches on the necessary aspect of archiving – not just the films but also criticism and other writing about silent movies – and how this can create a community of interested people. “Panchromatic, Metropolis” touches on this community (Panchromatic being a type of film developed during the 1900s that permitted rapid exposure through a spectrum of colour):

The new girl at work is not my colour.
In the Library of Quiet I sort

volumes on Silence and tidy racks
of Absent Sound. The capacity

to boom is blocked as if speaking (banned)
is all male voice, not our thoughts. She is

my partner, and we are a hand
of black and white. In the torazza,

five hundred steps to the folios,
the sun glazes petals of half-lit 

July above the desks. We touch arms.
She’s not my colour but she is my shade.

“The Wyrdlight Sisters” is inspired by “Haxan” a film that examines the nature of hell on earth as well as below it. The narrator remembers a library in Hell and has come to earth with devils who might return,

If they go back to Hell I might go back too –

my sister is outed
as a sorceress.

Why stay here when I know there’s no pain in Hell

as bad as slander?
Whistling wind is a witch,  

says our neighbour, gardens are spellbound, he’s seen 

wild weed ride a giant
slug of punishment.

My breath’s hot magistery will transform him.

Each of the fifteen poems is accompanied by an image from the Ronald Grant Archive, including stills from film and people shooting or editing film. The collection starts with an introduction from the poet as to why she was inspired by silent movies; and this is followed by an article on poetry and the silent cinema by Kevin Jackson, a journalist, script-editor and curator amongst other roles, who has written extensively about silent movies.. There are also notes on the poems and their accompanying images, together with a list of all the films Claire Crowther watched while writing the poems. These pieces of extra information provide a valuable complementary background for the poems. Like the “Silents”, the poems make the most of their restrictive forms and provide a concise homage to silent movies.

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Emma Lee’s Ghosts in the Desert is available from Indigo Dream Publishing. She reviews for The Journal, London Grip and Sabotage Reviews and blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.