Emma Lee observes how the poetry of Isabel Bermudez deals with subtle connections
Small Disturbances tells a big story through small focuses, as if tracing a family tree through a mix of records, keepsakes and treasures, letting the smaller things provide hints and clues to a reader who is free to take them at face value or to build up the story behind them, finding links and connections as the collection of objects gets bigger. The technique is explained in the poem, “Under Kew railway bridge,”
I set my eyes on a tiny wave, see it through to the other side before it dissolves; an old childhood game, one you're never sure you've won as you pit yourself against the current, try to marshall the flow, to keep a moment as it was beneath the play of light and shadow.
Although rooted in England, some of the poems look back to the poet’s Columbian heritage. In “Sonetos” about a grandmother,
if she could see me now in the British Library where she would never from those cloudy mountains think to look. Gift from the Biblioteca Nacional, Bogatá stamped on the inside cover; all these decades gone lost to continental drift and how little is left - a wristwatch, a powder compact, the small white bones of her poem, Illusiones.
The sound patterns and part rhyme as “drift” is echoed in “left” is picked up in the final couplet with “bones” and “Illusiones” suggestive of not just the loss of a grandmother but also the opportunity to quiz her about the relic of a poem. If there is a poetic gene, did the granddaughter inherit it from her grandmother? There’s another lucky find in the poem “The winter hives” which gives the collection its title,
We stumble on old hives and uncover among empty frames a single side of honey-comb. Untouched, an excess of sweetness on the path, a glow of egg-yolk yellow as these limestone outcrops catch the last sun; human faces staring out before the light changes, already old, like the year, or this sliver of moon shining down on the heart's small disturbances.
Birds feature in many of the poems: they can be a symbol of freedom, portents or messengers. Readers meet herons, an egret blown from its Norfolk home,/ he’s dreaming now, and Red of the gold-finches/ the sparrows’ dun colour (“Autumn”). In “January, Mortlake” as winter slowly gives way to spring, we see white gulls on the river that suddenly have the look of new souls. However Isabel Bermudez can also turn her focus on humanity, in “Real life” the poet ponders over her predecessor in a teaching job, who
lost the plot, came in after assembly, each day and cried, sitting in his classroom in his old brown overcoat. And, thinking of him today how nobody, not teacher, pupil or any of the staff, could forgive him, I think it funny, somehow I knew from the start, we had a thing or two in common.
It’s easier to mock rather than help him, easier to blame a newly qualified teacher with little experience rather than question why the students are unruly and the existing staff fail to appreciate their behaviour is alienating the newcomer who begins to identify with her predecessor. “Small Disturbances” is a gentle, well-crafted collection that carries its weight very lightly.
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) and Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.