Peter Ualrig Kennedy travels the world in the company of Margaret Eddershaw’s recent collection
I recently had the good fortune to hear Margaret Eddershaw reading from her new collection, at a triple launch of Mica Press poetry books at the wonderful Wivenhoe Bookshop. So it is indeed a great pleasure to review Is That All There Is? with its impressive and moving poems that are testament to the writer’s far-flung travels and which give us sights and flavours of a kaleidoscope of exotic places. The cover design by Leslie Bell displays a photo of one of the beautiful boat paintings of acclaimed Wivenhoe artist James Dodds.
Eddershaw has divided the collection into four sections. The first is ‘Leaving Footprints’ – and what an airy opening, with ‘Hanging Over Rio’:
Run run down a jutting platform at five thousand feet eyes on the horizon … Arms outstretched soar like Christ the Redeemer,
until in a final fourth stanza we are let down gently, “soft as a feather in a draught / to leave footprints / in Copacabana’s caster sugar sand”. A lovely feeling.
Next the poet takes us from Argentina to Ethiopia where ‘Lucy in the Sky’ brings us face to face with the small skeleton of hominid Lucy. A couple of useful caesuras help us – and the searching anthropologists in the field – to distinguish
shin vertebra tibia
the bones which produce
gathering excitement retreat to camp jigsaw the pieces, as a tape plays the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
The poet proffers us a sense of kinship with this primaeval being:
The small skull with pro-truding jaw chimplike yet she had human teeth.
Enough kinship to bring us up with a jolt of alarm at Lucy’s last act …
Now Eddershaw leaves Africa and is off to India with George Harrison’s ghost who “sits quietly at the sitar’s shoulder; / long fingers pause and his moustached / smile hovers …” and we begin to understand, with this third poem ‘Sweet Sitar’, that this collection of poems is a journey. The intuition is confirmed when next up is the Vietnamese city of Hué, followed by a wistful visit to a “high-rise of abandoned luggage” at Ellis Island, and so to a veiled tragedy at the Great Wall of China, in a poem titled ‘The Coat’:
Weather-beaten faces gather I show my bundle – there are murmurs of mudslides, workers falling into the ravine, they shrug – my child is heavy as granite.
These are cleverly descriptive poems; the structure is straightforward, mostly regular stanzas of free verse (until towards the end of the collection), but each poem is a brief story, firmly rooted in its location, and each one is elegiac and infused with a fine tristesse. Margaret Eddershaw presents many skilful and affecting images throughout. ‘Cedars’ tells of Beirut and the fragrant forest which once shaded all Mount Lebanon: “men fell like pine-needles in layers of loss”. Sometimes there is heartfelt sorrow: ‘This Water’ begins with the words of Rose, “rescued from a sinking boat on the Mediterranean Sea, 2015”:
this water has no ending and no – I swaddle them awhile then they sink softly onto my patchwork bed and long-dead sailors sing like seals for those without names whose shadows will sleep deep among the silver shimmer of scales this water has no ending and no beginning
The reader is approaching the end of the second section (‘Wine-Dark Sea’) by the time the significance of Is that all there is? is understood, in the final line of the affecting ‘Scattering’, set on Beachy Head. The two remaining sections, ‘Free Spirits’ and ‘Happy Families’, do what they say on the lid, cleverly and sensitively (although I would have excluded ‘Buphagus’). The very last poem ‘Stuff’ has introduced a new to me meaning of hussif – not just a housewife but a sewing-case. So I have learnt something there. I have also shared the despair voiced in this final poem, with its “favela mudslide of garments”, the realisation that stuff is often a lure to robbers … and I’ll leave you with its last three lines:
Now bars on windows will declare to all that the inmates of this asylum have too much stuff.
What an invigorating collection. Well done Margaret Eddershaw. Well done Mica Press. Recommended.