Emma Lee finds that Myra Schneider is on good form in her new mythic-flavoured collection
Persephone in Finsbury Park Myra Schneider Second Light Publications www.secondlightlive.co.uk ISBN 9780992708825 47pp £7.95
A new collection from Myra Schneider is usually a delight: a chance for a reviewer to relax and enjoy acutely-observed, crafted poems which create uncluttered images of their subjects, building up textures that ask the reader to look again. Persephone in Finsbury Park does not disappoint. The book is split into three parts, one of general observations, the second focussing on people who have been overlooked or whose reputation isn’t what it seems and the third section being the sequence which gives the collection its title. The first section, “Sunday Morning in the Park” starts with a voice calling “Lily!” which conjures up images of star-gazing, tiger lily flowers and Pre-Raphaelite women, not a character with a
brown coat. I gape - so utterly 'unlily' this hound which clearly intends to continue gorging on smells by the dirty water. Its stooping elderly owner puts a leaflet in my hand. Do come, she smiles. I nod, skirt a tricycle and an overweight man in shorts straining to do keep fit, glance at the paper. ‘Canine Capers: a Day of Fun’
That “its” in the third line of the quotation is telling. The observer is struggling to see this plain, muddy-brown dog as an epitome of feminine qualities suggested by her name. She’s clearly not an advert for the event the owner is involved with. The poem goes on to wonder at the choice of the word “capers”. Another misappropriated word is taken to task in “Pure” where it’s used to sell a lifestyle of “pure indulgence”. The word lingers,
tolls as I leave the judder in the main road and trot down to the park, rest my eyes on trees offering the froth of blossom, stare at the clot of log, plastic wrappers,
Its inappropriate use leaves the poet tense and unable to relax when seeing natural images which should induce calm but instead cause her to focus on the litter left in the brook.
From the second section, “The Real Mrs Beeton” turns out to be
a young woman who, instead of devoting her life to home and family like other Victorian wives, travelled by train with her publisher husband to his London office, wrote books fat with information, mostly magpied from other books, about household management, became a money spinner, an authority for later generations. I also learnt she'd suffered several miscarriages, bore two children who died in infancy, two who survived, died herself after the second - thanks to Mr Beeton's syphilis. Yet for years books in her name continued to appear. The matron's ghost still persists in my mind but what troubles me is Isabella. For all the thousands of pages this woman produced in her short life, the real Mrs Beeton didn't leave a single word about what she thought, felt, endured.
Today, she’d be a heavily-sponsored YouTube star, living in fear of her inauthenticity leaking out, but still as fake and as unknown as her Victorian version. This poem also raises the important point about how little we know of women’s lives and how, for many, access to an audience was dependent on permission and cooperation from a husband who might censor or exploit his wife’s story. She could have provided a warning about the toll taken by the building of a personal brand and allowing it to be taken over by external forces – generally marketing and preserving the brand’s integrity – at huge personal cost driven by her husband’s need to keep the income her name generated.
The title poem is a lively sequence that imagines Persephone (Persi) running away to become an actor when on a tube journey with
voices speaking languages from all over the world. She tried to imbibe the stillness of the aged but straight-backed lady in a purple sari sitting opposite. It was impossible. Her mind was bubbling like a cauldron with the Studios: the buzz of people coming in for performance classes, her new self in the Hound of Hell Company, the demanding rehearsals of Hamish's updated and satirical version of A Christmas Carol. It was brilliant to have the challenge of playing all three Christmas Ghosts. It struck her she looked like a ghost in the window opposite. Her long chestnut brown hair was a mass of colorless fuzz, her face enlongated but empty, somehow sinister. 'You get the part,' Hamish had told her later, 'because your voice changes were brilliant and now you're picking up on projecting differently.' Working with him was fueling her life,
Her mother, figuring out that she can’t persuade Persi to leave Hamish, breezes in to try and persuade Persi that she could use her acting skills to give talks to boost her mother’s business while resting between parts. The rhythm and use of enjambment prevent the longer lines feeling like prose and keep the reader moving on. Sensuous details build up texture and layer the poem with a sure touch. In Persephone in Finsbury Park Myra Schneider demonstrates she continues to be on form and a delight to read.
Emma Lee‘s most recent publication is Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, 2015) and she was co-editor for Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves, 2015). She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.