Mar 26 2018
Ruth Valentine recognizes the delicacy with which Isabel Bermudez introduces poetic strangeness into familiar subjects.
Isabel Bermudez’ poems come from a world of bees, dung beetles and wrens, as well as Oxford Circus and the Croydon tram. The aesthetic is of mild revelations in familiar places. Recalling the Hertfordshire Company, one of the many ‘pals’ groups that enlisted and died together in World War One, she writes:
Somewhere, the trembling of a lark maps what’s familiar and strange. And the moon, her craters sunk, the morning moon in a pale summer sky, is hung, rare, like a fragment of bone. ['Centenary']
Making the familiar strange is, of course, one of the tasks of poetry, and a more delicate one than might be imagined. The familiar may stay just that, and become banal; while too much strangeness distracts from the poem’s meaning.
One way to bridge the two is to change the subject, the apparently new topic illuminating the old. In the best poems here, Isabel Bermudez achieves that seamlessly. ‘Poinsettia’ starts with a hesitation in speech, a distractedness:
‘We had them there,’ she says the red flowers in the photograph.
And then, in the next stanza, we are with this woman’s grandmother, surreptitiously taking cuttings, and from there, starkly,
She had to give her own mother the morphine at the end. So young, she was, and unprepared.
Arguably the poem might end there, rather than stating the loss of memory. The desire to explain can mark a lack of trust in the connections and resonances of the poem.
Where Bermudez lets her imagination free, the results can be startling and satisfying. The moon becomes a drunk, out on Temporary Release – “he wanders the skies in his pyjamas” – but settles into a past of building work, concisely conjured. (‘Moon’). Following the satnav through South London in the dark, poet and driver find themselves in Camberwell Cemetery – “You have reached your final destination” – where
I am dying of laughter. I can’t speak for the sheer joy of it. I can hear God too, his divine cackle [‘Adventures with the Satnav’]
Occasionally a poem will be weighted down with too-correct prose language: “Not till years later, do I see//on the back of the lid, in pencil”, or “It seems right, somehow, that it/should sit long-ignored in a window” – though this latter heaviness is soon lifted, like the object in the poem, a majolica box, turned over to reveal “happiness: a breeze in the tall trees fingering summer.” (‘Felicidad’).