Sep 15 2020
Poetry Review – FATHER LEAR: Peter Ualrig Kennedy is transfixed by Penelope Shuttle’s mastery of her art in her most recent collection
Penelope Shuttle is a poet’s poet and, my goodness, this collection is a veritable treasure house of amazing poetry. From line to line there is constant surprise, while her words run smoothly through, making perfect sense of the unexpected. In ‘Big Ships”:
When there are stars in winter they glitter the way pain does when it comes
These lines have such heft, for we know that the poet has experienced the deep pain of loss “making me think / how sadness can bed down in a heart…” In the next poem, ‘Hearts by Night’, there is a sequence of metaphors to astonish the reader:
Hearts are quiet as a she-wolf at the wellhead or the spider’s darling poison cup All night they’re blown sevenfold about the city young and old and hurt at the gate
‘Kew Gardens, 1913’ employs some neat metonymy: “Green-painted tables are run off their feet / in the prideful park with its fake Pagoda” and later continues fancifully with “The shalloon apron struts along the borders.” ‘Hallam Street’ suggests London as a Faeryland:
thinking thus I board the 88 to rattle-tat round our river-beauty city Faery London the world’s Achilles heel till I’m tired as a nail from Our Lord’s cross
I love “rattle-tattle round” but it’s that final line which makes one sit up straight. This poem is also unusual (or unique) in that it casually tosses “sturdy omophores” into the mix. I am not often wrong-footed by coming across an unfamiliar word; and am I to be fazed by a term for a coarse fabric? I shall squirrel “shalloon”, as well as “omophores”, away into my lexicon cupboard. As well as the appearance of some esoteric words, there is opportunity in each page for a new form: sometimes a poem of couplets, sometimes of tercets, often a thoughtful free verse poem – possibly one strewn with caesuras and white space.
‘Self-Portrait as Katharine of Aragon’ is a poem which seems particularly personal. It is notable for the shock of its single final line “They say the axe has been ordered from France” – but this is not a metaphor. The poet, in the guise of the cast-aside Katharine, suddenly confronts us with the fate of her usurper Anne Boleyn. A grim realisation – but is Katharine saying to herself “She had it coming”? Intriguing. And intriguing again is ‘The Lucidity (or Otherwise) of a Swan’. We are now deep into a dreamscape, but one with some deft imagery:
the swan is also the beauty of things, white wings folded back like a restaurant napkin,
‘Uncommon Prayer’ is an incipit: “all about lying your way / to the truth” and leading us to “as step by step / the wren / runs up the tiny air” – what a masterly image! This is immediately followed by a departure from earlier form with a partly-found poem, in non-rhyming couplets, inspired by a visit to the Ashmolean Museum; it culminates, after many unthreatening museum observations, with this unsettling ending:
In the Victory Room captive women and children are led away by soldiers brandishing the decapitated heads of their menfolk.
In the next poem, Shuttle comments “I’m past thinking / but I think about colours all the time” which must be the description of a mind folding in upon itself. And so we move to ‘Verbs’, a poem with such a deft touch that the simple words pull at the heartstrings:
the verbs are too awkward Dad the nouns too rich … but you are smaller than a tear now
A page or two on, and, after the simplicity of ‘Verbs’, the poet states that “my heart once again behaves like a peat bog, / overflowing, undergoing paludification by absorbing sixteen times its own weight” – a simile strong enough to overcome all adversaries. But if that has left you wondering in admiration, ‘the opposite of night’ may surprise you with an animal fact:
unlike a female kangaroo a day doesn’t have three vaginas
Well, there’s no arguing with that. And days “are never sorry about breaking up with you / was never meant to be they shrug / leaving no forwarding address” – a clever notion.
In this review I have touched on only a selection of Penelope Shuttle’s poems. All of them, from ‘Father Lear’ to the concluding ‘1976’, make us care, make us want to care. The collection finishes with ‘language as a gleaming shield’ which is not a poem but a “behind the poem” article, also a threnody for her late husband Peter Redgrove. She ponders “Perhaps a poem is a spell spelt out to test how much reality we can bear. Not much, as we know.”
Finally, from ‘it came as if called’:
it came setting star against star doornail against door it came as if called and as if I cared
At the end I have read and understood and revelled in the poet’s use of language, and I only want to say to her: Penelope – we care.
Peter Ualrig Kennedy