John Forth reviews recent collections by Simon Richey & Sue Boyle

naming the treesafe-passageNaming the Tree by Simon Richey
Oversteps Books, 2014
ISBN 9781 906 856 465   50pp   £9.80

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Safe Passage by Sue Boyle
Oversteps Books, 2015
ISBN 9781-906 856-564   52pp   £9.80

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My best poetry tutor once set me to write about a contemporary poet using the title ‘A picture of experience or a language game?’ It was the ’seventies and we loved all that back then. Leaving aside the struggle we’ve had ever since to find a poet who isn’t doing both, it’s still useful to size up a newcomer as being predominantly one or the other. Simon Richey is unusual in seeking to head straight for the maelstrom of word and world, quietly probing the one concept and telling a story in which word, stone, bird, day, flame and tree make up ‘the book’. The trick, as with any game, is being able to sustain it. Each of the objects is recycled, some as one-word-titles, to re-appear in not-so-new guises. To start with a spoiler, this is where we’re headed:

It is the word that keeps still
and the day that moves into it…
                                         (‘Monday’)

Brave, when you consider that Eliot’s words ‘slip, slide, perish, will not stay still’ but perhaps it doesn’t matter what we say, the word will be just a word. Accordingly, the book opens with ‘The Word’, and its being spoken for the last time, where the meaning had nowhere to go and then itself began to wither. It’s ‘Crow’, who was one bird and all birds, except that here the tongues of men make sounds which

…then fluttered for the sheer pleasure of it
in the wind of their breathing,
words rising from them like birds.
                                         (‘A History of the Tongue’)

‘The Stone’ provides a backcloth as the eternal present that will endure, surviving us all, and a series of vignettes. ‘Considering Fire’ strays into the personal when three boys use a magnifying glass and something quite beyond us came through the entrance we had made for it. The reader looks forward to ‘Visiting Birds’ throughout, and in the poem of that name they call out from a place where language has never been. The central pillar is the ten-part ‘Naming the Tree’, short observations on the relation between word and world, where the former takes root as a small flame passed from person to person. It’s only when the tree is loosened from its background that it’s able to become a new creation, half a thing of the world, half of themselves.

In this setting, we’re taken by surprise when something like a real event happens, beginning with a short poem ‘The Moment’ in which simultaneous reactions are lightly etched. In ‘Something Had Been Done’ the lighting of candles in a town square gains substance when it appears in the paper, described as ‘an ocean of light’, where the image makes the event more real. It’s possible to manipulate the world of substance as well, and ‘Days’ is an elegy (for an unnamed person) which steps outside the framework of the book. And that’s about it for the real. The final poem (‘The Book’) is the only one perhaps longer than it needed to be. Had it ended with stanza three, we’d have been left with a book always on the edge of becoming something else, an ending more suggestive than the conclusive one that follows it. These small aesthetic philosophies, buoyed up by simple objects, will become attempts at a definition of consciousness itself; and real events are treated with the reticence used in pondering linguistic surfaces, as if the poet is not quite sure of the substantiality of what they represent.

Speaking of which, Sue Boyle’s first book revels in what one poem calls ‘the fiction of surfaces’ and sets no boundaries to the kinds of fiction she might include. It’s a joyful celebration of narratives, colours and characters honed since her competition-winning Smith/Doorstop pamphlet five years ago which included a poem lauded by the Forward judges. It’s no surprise that scenes and people from the past inhabit her pages; her interest in art and antiques is evident in many of the poems. In ‘the harpsichord maker of the rue st andre des arts’ (her titles eschew capitals) she asks:

Did it matter to Tobias whether he was paid
to shape the grande barre of a harpsichord
or the crossbar to hold the blade of a guillotine?

His is a past that will ‘slide’ into the speaker’s present to confront the question of what an engineer (or an artist) might be held responsible for. In ‘a place called argentina’ the words for love and death (L’amore, La morte) are seen as evidence supported by Roman history that the fiction of surfaces can be as misleading as the signs. As well as some moving personal poems of love and loss, the overall impression throughout is of a life lived and quizzed in the best proportions. She’s good at bringing the pictures to life in ‘the portraits at montacute’:

the heirs, the hopeful daughters, the good wives,
the sycophants, the terrified, the vain – 

….they note how slow we walk…

Again, this sliding from their lives into ours is carefully managed. The use of detail, especially of place, is evident in ‘the bridesmaids in the strand’, where past and present are fused in a vividly described set of Thames landscapes. In the title poem, ‘safe passage’, the oculus in the bridge is the one that warns when the Tiber is at risk of flood, leaving the speaker pondering the impossibility of escaping one’s own self. I did wonder on this occasion if the linking of inner and outer was made sufficiently clear and whether an implied ‘likeness’ was enough; but in general the poems that stop short of telling conclusions are the most successful, and there were some moments when I’d have welcomed a bit more work to do. That aside, the sheer range of experience pictured here is undeniable, a delight in things being various I think someone has said.