Rosie Johnston finds Nancy Mattson’s poetry moves with seemingly effortless elegance while carrying a huge variety of subjects and voices
In March 2017, some Carmelite nuns were making their way home via a north London underground station. Carmelites are an enclosed order, so it was unusual for them to be out (they had been to a meeting with the Archbishop of Westminster); but that wasn’t what spurred a young commuter to photograph them on his phone. The station was Seven Sisters. The picture was posted online and went viral in no time.
Alongside the photographer was Nancy Mattson, the perfect person to capture the moment in poetry, as “Vision on Platform 2”:
I didn’t realise I was reading Seamus Heaney’s poems in Seeing Things on the very day the Irish honour the holy St Patrick. Let me assure you, he has no role in this tale. A man with dreadlocks sitting beside me on Platform 1 at Seven Sisters, next stop Rectory Road, raised his eyes from his smartphone and, lo, the moment I looked up from Seeing Things, a vision on Platform 2 appeared to us both. ‘Behold’ we would have said, but strangers never speak at Seven Sisters. Our mouths fell open at a row of seven nuns in black habits, seven immaculate white wimples.
Mattson is at such ease in this, the title poem of her excellent fourth collection: ‘His shot went viral on facebook and twitter,/ enchanting all save a pair of literal souls/ who believed they spied an extra holy knee/ draped in black, or an eighth sister’s elbow.’ But – here is the poet’s wry smile – ‘Who would accuse a man who never cuts/ his hair of cropping a redundant nun?’
Mattson was born in Winnipeg and brought up in Edmonton, Canada. She spent her childhood summers in Saskatchewan with her Finnish grandparents and has written, in her prize-winning first collection (Maria Breaks Her Silence, Coteau, 1989), the life of a 19th century Finnish woman living in Canada. Her second collection, Writing with Mercury (Flambard, 2006) and her presence the same year in Shoestring’s anthology Take Five established Mattson as a poet who strides from Canada to Finland, Italy and England, taking a variety of subjects and voices with her. If, like George Bernard Shaw, she showed her fondness for her native land by leaving it, the roots of her poetry are still deeply in the places of her family and early years. Finns and Amazons (Arrowhead, 2012) gave poetic voice to her great-aunt Lisi’s letters sent from Karelia to Saskatchewan in the 1930s. Mattson’s poetry has an apparently effortless elegance, easy on the eye and ear, with wonderfully unobstrusive use of symmetry and refrains.
This latest collection is in three parts. The first, about childhood, starts with a stunning poem that almost made me forget to catch a train. “Wading for Stones” takes us to the ‘shallows/ of the gravelly Saskatchewan’ where Mattson played as a child:
Barefoot on a wide sandbar, ankled in silt, flour gold, mastodon bones pureed by glaciers, I’m building mudtowns with grandchildren
Before we can settle too long into grandmotherly ‘silt’, we’re off with young Nancy to see “Reveen the Impossibilist”. Like most of us, she is sure she’ll be immune to stage-hypnotist Reveen’s mesmeric powers but:
My boyfriend swore later I danced as a sugar plum fairy, kicked off my snowboots and twirled petipa, petipa, played an air violin, swung my elephant trunk in a lumpen walk to the watering hole.
Section II is my favourite, about how we tell our survival stories. If we’re stumped for words, “The Brothers’ Vow, 1946” tells us,
We will tell our stories in wood, take turns splitting and stacking lengths of poplar and birch. Each log, stick and twig is a story we must tell.
In “Pen and Ink”, she addresses an artist and former ‘Greenham Common woman’ who ‘caught babies in Brazil, cut their cords.’
Now you apply pen to paper with the same clear purpose, every scar a reason for a line.
Mattson performs her own magic trick of writing in a variety of voices, male and female, often with a sense that each poem’s story will be told only once, and to no-one but us. I was especially moved by the conjunction on facing pages of “Her Decision”:
They will come again, she fears. The torso of this totem pole is thicker than the hard belly of this pregnant girl who kneels at its foot, tracing crosses
with “Epitaph, Floating”, perhaps relating to the ‘pregnant girl’, perhaps not:
Bury your fear she was lost in a field Trust foxes and deer to visit her grave Assume that nettles and thistles adorn it and that snow and wind sing antiphons
Balance and symmetry pervade this collection and soon Mattson is telling us of another conjunction of London strangers, herself and a younger mum, who chat about getting children to sleep:
Motion is the cure for infant insomnia, we agreed. How old is your boy? Six months and I’m lucky to have him. We both nearly died at his birth when my heart gave out. My own heart stopped at the story she gave, unbidden, that mirrored mine over fifty years ago. We need not speak of miracles, for we embody them.
Mattson is a poet for whom religious faith is the warp and weft of life, yet whose words are full of dance, fun and, that most Christian of vices, alcohol. Section III draws this together in some of the lightest poems of the collection. “Her Habit” describes a nun coming into an Italian pub: ‘A blur of grey slid toward the bar…’
The barman knew her, poured four thumbs Of mirto rosso, sweet and strong, that Sardinian shot from the dark red berries of myrtle bushes that crowd out the briers in Isaiah. Like a swallower of knives or fireballs, she threw back her head, downed the liqueur, her crucifix bouncing. Slow as a turtle’s head from a shell-hole, her hand proceeded out of its sleeve to situate her empty shot-glass on the bar, high as an altar, with practised grace.
Not many collections combine grief, heroism, spirituality, sensuality and humour so rewardingly. Even for an atheist like me, this collection is addictive and fun.
Rosie Johnston‘s three poetry books, published by Lapwing Publications in Belfast, are Sweet Seventeens (2010), Orion (2012) and Bittersweet Seventeens (2014). Her poems have appeared or featured in Hedgerow, London Grip, Culture NI, FourxFour, The Honest Ulsterman, Ink, Sweat & Tears and in Live Canon’s anthologies 154: In Response to Shakespeare’s Sonnet’ (2016) & New Poems for Christmas (2018). She has read her poetry widely, including Hungerford Literary Festival, Watford’s Big Word festival, Winchester’s Loose Muse, the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, the Troubadour, Torriano, In-Words in Greenwich and Whitstable’s Harbour Books. Rosie was poet in residence for the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust until she moved to live by the sea in Kent. www.rosiejohnstonwrites.com