John Snelling finds that Caroline Natzler‘s poetry manages to remain accessible even while taking the reader into areas that are far from simple.

natzlerOnly
Caroline Natzler
Grenadine Press, 2014
ISBN 978-0-9532537-1-5
24pp     £4

Those who enjoyed Caroline Natzler’s previous collection Fold (Hearing Eye 2014) will be pleased to see a further collection so quickly and will find that it does not disappoint. Much of what is admirable and impressive in these poems can be seen in the collection’s second poem ‘Coming Down’. It begins

Coming down from the turbulent light
the sun’s weight and the far red shift
that shows like a wake the stars’ departing

almost numb now to the long ache
do we matter, as we feel, or are we nothing?
.

In a few lines, with no sense of strain, the cosmic and the personal are juxtaposed in a way that speaks of a sense that we are neither the centre of the universe nor insignificant little specks of matter within it. The simile linking the stars’ departing to a wake introduces a theme of impermanence that underlies the poem. It ends,

you watch now from the containing dark of your body
through remnants of blue peeled from the sky

for small stories only

birds flicked into being, flying away, always away
but making such a noise as they go.
.

The theme is a perennial one throughout world literature so why, in this poem and others in the collection, does it feel fresh and worth attending to once again? I would suggest that it is because Natzler has understood both what is true and what is limiting in the poetic dicta of ‘show not tell’ and ‘no ideas but in things’. The latter, by William Carlos Williams, once elicited the comment, ‘No ideas at all in Williams’ and many have questioned how much really depends on a red wheelbarrow. It is also true, however, that straight ‘telling’ and an avoidance of the concrete usually makes for uninspired and uninspiring poetry. Consistently, in Caroline Natzler’s poetry, we are in touch with what Wordsworth called

 …the very world which is the world
Of all of us, - the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all!

Our experience of the world is through responding to it as an embodied consciousness. These poems convey rich, complex and thoughtful responses in language that elucidates rather than obscures. At the same time, nothing is denied or simplified for the sake of a false clarity. Her poem ‘Trying’ begins,

There is only facing the sun
stumbling on in the blur of the after-image
.

The poem goes on to reference the larger cosmos and our sense of how vast it is. It ends

then turning home to criss-crossed shadows
peculiar hearts.

The poem ‘In Time’ ends

we make of our lives profusion, not order

and our partly scorched gold-ish tatters
are not twined into a neat garland
or wound tight around our bodies, ready for the earth

but blow and sway, uncertain foliage in the dusk
lush leaves of the day.

What these poems offer is a vision of how our lives are limited and circumscribed by our bodies and material reality yet rich with feeling and meaning to a degree that can only be suggested rather than stated. The abiding sense is one of honesty. The poems face the human condition and warn against the hubris of imagining that we can ever fully understand it while suggesting how we can find meaning and value in life without denying its limitations and transience.

Finally, there is the collection’s title. Caroline Natzler’s previous collection, Fold, included a poem with that title. This one does not contain a poem called ‘Only’ but the word appears in many of the poems and its meaning is fundamental to the spirit of the collection. The first poem in it is called ‘Whole’ and begins,

You write about nothing only
and eternity


It ends,

deep into the earth of this dazzling
particular world.

What is whole is only itself but is complete and needs nothing further. Throughout the collection we are shown aspects of life that are limited and ‘only’ but that are also complete and of value. We are also brought face to face with the difficult side of ‘only’. In the poem ‘Release’ we are exhorted to

write against the assault of experience
lift it out of the brute minute-to minute
.

only to be later reminded that

 …it’s only people who read
- people on their own hard ground

it’s only something said
across a neighbour’s fence.
.

The collection does not take a single stance that it tries to sell to us. At times it it shows us the ‘only’ where we wish there were more and at others it shows us an ‘only’ in a way that suggests that more would spoil it. This is accessible poetry that takes us into areas that are far from simple without creating the puzzles and conundrums that some poets are drawn to as soon as they try to reflect on life’s complexities.

 

John Snelling has been writing poetry since the 1960s. In 1976, he won first prize in the City of Westminster Arts Council’s poetry competition. In 2013, he gained a Judge’s Special Commendation in The Poetry Box competition for dark and horror poetry. At the 2012 Torbay Festival of Poetry he presented one side of the festival debate. The debate subsequently appeared in Acumen 75. He has had a short collection of poems published, Siren Songs (Nettle Press 2007) and poems in the winter 2013 and spring 2014 editions of London Grip.