Poetry Review – The Shadow Factory: Rachael Clyne admires Deborah Harvey’s confident and accomplished handling of her themes
I know where I am with Deborah Harvey’s work, both in its use of locations and in its content. Deborah is an accomplished poet from Bristol with four collections and a novel to her name. She is consistent in her motifs and at ease with her poetic language, which seems to flow seamlessly onto the page and into your ears. Her work is accessible, full of evocative detail and at the same time is underpinned with a deep understanding of her world. She has long been committed to writing about sense of place and specific locations, mainly in the South West where her ancestry lies. She researches the local history as in, “Heron’s Green Bay”, or the title poem of her collection, a derelict factory built in 1937, to provide aircraft for the coming war. She brings to life, events and people associated with them.
On first glance, The Shadow Factory seems to meander through an array of topics including: a sequence of ekphrastic poems about the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, a poem about the dogs of Chernobyl and a witty poem “Old Moulder’s Almanac” making fun of astrological signs with increasingly dark explanations, ‘graves heave and pitch, corpses complain of feeling sick / while the stillborn slumber on, rocked in their cribs.’ On a closer look, shadows increasingly flit in and out to bring a wholeness to the collection, that I found ultimately satisfying. There are shadows of ghosts, ancestors and even evil, as in her poem “Sensible Shoes”, about a nurse colleague who once spoke of refusing a lift from a persistent Fred and Rose West. The shoes embody her character and how that pragmatic sensibility saved her life:
Not prone to entertain crises, dramas you button their pyjamas, tuck them tightly into bed… Even this story you mention in passing never tempted to dress it up, take it out to dine.
Death is a recurring shadow, as in “Nature Notes”, about three women murdered by their partners and an extraordinary poem written in the voice of a corpse, “where he lay undiscovered”. This poem details his decay and consumption by nature’s insect scavengers. The loss of the poet’s father is also a central theme. Her wreath of sonnets, “Black Seeds”, was written about his death and whilst tender, it is unsparing in exposing the shadows held within and is one of several poems exploring their complex relationship:
Only when a pear’s cut open can you know what you will get crisp clear flesh or something dry and mealy, rot only visible from within It’s not that those who idealise didn’t know you, just that they only saw your rosy ripening skin and though it’s true you mellowed as you grew older you never lost that grit or the wreath of black seeds that were lying at your core
In the context of the poet’s portraits of her father, I am reminded of the title poem, “The Shadow Factory” with its image of a factory built for war that has outlived its purpose and lingers as an empty shell waiting demolition.
Another major aspect of the poet’s work is that of nature– ever-present, sometimes as a primary focus as in “Touchstone”
And you too will be picked clean, isn’t that what you came here for? No demands, no expectations only let your bones hold you up, keep your gaze on the granite horizon till all is lost and you are found and the road back home is slow with cows and quick with swallows
Nature is also woven into domestic and relationship poems. “Try Yoga”, is about the yawning gap between an elderly mother and her daughter, who makes efforts to care for and please her ‘She takes a sip of Earl Grey Tea, it’s made / just as she likes / a smidgen of milk, a teaspoon of sugar / (slightly heaped).’ Mother’s advice, meanwhile demonstrates a disturbing lack of knowledge of her daughter,
You know, I’m not at all sure all this poetry’s good for you. I think you should try to empty your mind declutter your bookshelves, try yoga, drink kefir, I’ll give you some culture
The poem ends with an affirmation of the daughter’s true nature:
but the distance between you is growing greater and she can’t feel the roar that is passing silently through mountains as poetry’s teeth close in on your nape and it drags you unprotesting deeper into jungle
The penultimate poem “Heaney’s Wake”, uses an encounter with a fox to affirm the poet’s own wild spirit:
a dog-fox on Horfield Common in Belisha beacon glare waits on the pavement for me to brake trots over the crossing with a twitch of his bristling white-tipped tail If I could touch his fur, sparks would jump and crackle my spirits kindled by this sight, this burning candlestick to hold against the night. .
. Rachael Clyne from Glastonbury is widely published in journals. She has a prizewinning collection,
Singing at the Bone Tree (Indigo Dreams 2014) and a recent pamphlet, Girl Golem (4Word.org 2018).