Dec 3 2020
Poetry review – WE COULD BE ANYWHERE BY NOW: Julie Hogg observes that Katherine Stansfield’s enjoyment of language doesn’t prevent her tackling darker subjects
Thoughts of distant horizons, mellow memories, chancing possibilities and faraway shores guided me, wistfully, to the title of this collection, We Could Be Anywhere By Now. Katherine Stansfield is the author of two other poetry books and like the present volume, her debut collection Playing House, and the pamphlet, All That Was Wood, were also published by Seren
Here is carefully considered, accessible writing; simultaneously instinctual and reasoned,. It is often a juxtaposition of logic, lucidity and inexorable truth, intuition and overheard hearsay: however never ambiguous. Each poem has a crystal clear rationale and the author’s voice is confident and cogent.
Nowhere is Stansfield’s assured voice more clearly evident than in the fifth and final section of the collection where there are five poems of enormous resonance. These poems, written in North America,, are revelatory poems and prophetic. Written at the time of Donald Trump’s American presidential campaign, these poems are full to overflowing with political unease. This is a late and unexpected shift in tone of the collection but is carried out with skill and aplomb and provides an unassuming yet all-consuming climax to this whole work. The high-flying freedom of a bird is evoked in a poem titled ‘The birds of British Columbia’ where the author clearly wishes she could be anywhere by now:
and this, my first fledgling in a year, stops starts again with a goose landing fatly in the marina’s grease
Another poem, ‘At a party in the States’, introduces more characters – “this guy from Rhode Island says, Where are you guys from?” and then goes on to demonstrate the “gaslighting” that occurs in the small talk of a conversation.
‘Three beers in, Sunset beach, Vancouver’ is a lusciously languid work which is permeated with an air of resigned acknowledgement of social discontent and inevitable change:
We are putting the day to bed, to beer but you long for gasoline and brackish tides: timestamp of good days you have to believe will come again. But on every bus I take in this city someone is dying. Someone is dying I tell the blue heron that swings by
This poem has perfectly honed pace, each line pausing momentarily for a slow slug from a bottle or a drag of a cigarette and it constantly revealing those thoughts you never even knew you had (or are having, or will have) whilst drinking:
The choices we make are the choices we make. Some streets in this city, it’s the end of the world.
‘Relative Distance’ is based on listening intently to the subtlest nuances of a slipper sales assistant,.
But Europe is too dangerous, a death trap says this woman in this gift shop in Vancouver. A continent of fanatics where bad people wait to knife her at markets, run her down on bridges, blow up any train she’d catch
The poet’s voice then enters with a question
I want to ask, where is this place that makes her so afraid?
and then responds with an unspoken but controlled deluge of truths and gut feeling, arresting this reader with shared lived experience of our recent era. I pause to catch my breath before the final stanza of the poem:
The assistant sets a slipper on each of my hands. I crawl to the quayside, throw myself away.
‘Vexiphobia’ acutely explores an irrational fear of flags:
he sees it’s not the flag on a pole that brings fear. It’s the people who hold them on the ground below. Their fists, What they mean.
These poems are continually travelling, both physically and metaphorically, across time, space, place and using different modes of transport. They are fluid in form and never tightly constrained although always expertly controlled, In ‘The Suitcases’ we hear
a knock at the door. A Man. Said he’d been at the river. Said he’d found ponies pulling clothes from three suitcases on the bank but no one was there.
A child’s inquisitive anxiety and puzzled urgency are portrayed flawlessly by the poet:
Get them to seal off the river. But how can you seal off a river when a river wants to run and run?
Stansfield spent her childhood on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. In her poetry, this familial landscape mingles endearingly in relationships with loved ones. Poems such as ‘Bodmin Moor time capsule,’ ‘At the Minack,’ ‘Alternative Route.’ and‘Klonjuze’ describe an invented, perhaps secret, language between siblings. In ‘Flight Risk’ time travels generationally, the poet musing sense of place spanning centuries.
Poems involve both imaginary and actual characters as in ‘The local historian questions her life choices:’
At weekends she crawls tips for the last of the tape players. She can un-jam all the photocopiers in all the reference libraries for fifty miles.
Linguistics are relished in this collection. ‘Talk of her’ exposes Dolly Pentreath in a variety of different ways, a Cornish fishwife who lived in Mousehole and gained the reputation of being the last native speaker of the Cornish language:
she was found by the language man as if she was lost, that the day he came she was raging. He thought her curses Welsh
Stansfield has now moved her home to mid Wales and rhythm and lilt of Cornish, Welsh and other languages are fascinatingly, often wryly and strangely, explored in an innovative way – for instance through the poet’s Welsh classes.
The poems in this collection are delightful to listen to. After hearing ‘Click here to upload your review’ read aloud by the author during this year’s Aldeburgh Festival the poem insists on springing to mind each time I’ve subsequently looked at Tripadvisor reviews. As the quoted extracts show, the sheer joy of written and spoken language runs through this work and invites the reader to revel in and contemplate surprise and futurity in travel.
We speculate on the missing tea trolley and decide bikes might be to blame, getting in the way, or all these holiday cases. Rain comes at the carriage. He peers through the gloom and says, we could be anywhere by now. [‘Soundings, Newtown’]