Ruth Valentine admires the subtlety of Jane Draycott’s poetic effects.

The Occupant 
Jane Draycott
Carcanet 2016   
ISBN: 978 1 784103 00 2

The cover illustration for Jane Draycott’s The Occupant is a detail from Vuillard’s La Porte Entr’ouverte. The palette of subtle yellows and blue-greens, the surprisingly strong mark-making, the hesitation of the figure peering in, and the title itself of the painting are all keys to this quiet collection. Jane Draycott seems to gaze at the world through a half-open door, noting unobtrusive detail and unexpected connections, as merged with her surroundings as the woman whose skin-tone so strangely matches the wallpaper behind her.

Take for instance ‘O God Who Made,’ the hymn-book title belying both form and content. The first stanza disabuses us straight away of any conventional reverence:

	Almighty god who made the land
	and sea but did not make these canals,
	look down from your attic at this latticework
	of water…

The visual structure is doubled already in sound – attic/lattice – and that gentle musicality continues in the rest of the verse: dank/damp/bow-lamp/embankment. But god and the canal-builders are not the only makers here: the network of canals is

	a sash round the city’s waist, there where the hand
	rests close to the heart like Rembrandt’s Isaac
and his young Rebecca,

so the tenderness of that painting, The Jewish Wedding, reflects back into the poet’s feeling for her city.

This is delicate writing, allusive, relying on sound as much as statement for its impact. At their best, the poems open out a fan of suggested meanings without pinpointing one. Some live in mythic landscapes, unexplained: like the sonnet ‘Prospect,’ telling us, “Anyone who wanted to could leave,” though not where nor why. The tone remains ambiguous, curiously detached:

				We walked across the water
	in our thousands and left behind forever
	all that was great: the monuments and sewers,

Then the sestet changes the set-up again: “Faced with the prospect of living forever.” Really? But somehow we have already been drawn into this alternative reality. Part of that trick is the rhyme-scheme, the a and b half-rhymes almost identical: gather/river/sweaters/water, all feminine, soft, regretful, till the full stop of line eight: heart. The same rhymes are repeated in the sestet; one phrase even recurs, bringing us to the final masculine rhyme and the even more ambivalent ending:

			We had left behind forever
	all that we had loved.  It was a start.

As this suggests, Jane Draycott has a great facility with form and music, a formal range to match the range of material. Her lines stay in the mind for their quiet musicality. Occasionally this ease with form seems to lead her to foreclose too soon on the meaning, as in ‘Lost,’ her meditation on Hermione in the Winter’s Tale. Hermione’s sleep is a snowy winter, beautifully imagined, from which we know she will wake; but to these voices?

	Astonish us, they seem to say,
astonish us again today.

The problem of understated verse is that understatement can shade easily into mundanity. ‘Italy to Lord,’ the first poem in the collection, uses the familiar trope of the encyclopaedia and its random connections, without quite animating it with any new perceptions. In ‘The Stare,’ the moon’s “platinum stare” (a lovely accuracy) is “just letting us know/it’s there. After all, life must go on.” Hard to imagine a poem, other than satire, that could usefully incorporate that last cliché.

At its best, though, the precise imagery leads the poet to a discovery that surprises both her and her reader. In ‘Noon and No-one,’ we move from a hot deserted piazza, where the cash-machine screen is unreadable, to some new, enabling dimension:

				In this gorgeous glare
	bones grow and muscles lengthen – 
	a girl could climb to her full height.

and thence abruptly and elegantly above the whole urban scene:

	As high as it gets on the day’s hill the kestrel
	checks its kill.  You can make this happen.