Poetry review – FEVERFEW: Jonathan Squirrell finds much to enjoy in a new collection by Anna Saunders
If one should never judge a book by its cover, when is it legitimate to form a first opinion? Feverfew by Anna Saunders catches the attention from the contents page. The first poem is entitled “What I Learnt from the Owl”, and esoteric as it is, it tells me I will like it. A few lines down come “The Wolf Speaks at the Tory Party Conference” and “The Benefit Minister’s Mythological Creature of Choice”, and I upgrade like to love.
And I’m proven right. Leaving aside the politics for now, the language is instantly, forcefully excellent. Here is a poet who basks in words, and employs them potently. A heart is ‘carapaced’ in gold, the earth is an ‘embering coal.’ Again and again Saunders plucks out words and feeds them into unfamiliar contexts, only to coin expressions that seem as though they ought to have existed all along.
It is all so impressive that a rare foray into cliché – ‘sticky as treacle’ – seems more than ordinarily disappointing. But the writing revives and resolves any doubt. There is rhythm: ‘gilt-edged peonies, sparkling sea anemones;’ alliteration: ‘a monstrous weight that pestles him down to a powder;’ and, everywhere, power.
Love and violence are a constant, the fine lines explored:
Hard to tell apart An arm drawn back for a punch And Cupid pulling his bow.
The barbs and arrows sting, but there is always mitigating wit. Words can be tools, weapons even. How else might the pen be mightier than the sword? But they can also be toys, flighty, fanciful and playful. Saunders’ gift is to present us with the best of both worlds. Words that bite, and words that tease. Often within the same line. Tense after a tattoo, a couple ‘needle’ one another. ‘Language is the lash’ another verse attests, a rosary is played upon the spine, and love ‘speaks in leather tongues.’
In a culmination of the theme, “Rare” riffs on Greek myth, passion, meat and flesh, culminating in a violent kiss:
He says his love for her is uncommon. Every mouthful tastes bloodied. He explains that it is rare.
Almost every piece has a sharp edge. “Torn” lives up to its title, as ‘ripping stitches’ become a metaphor for sundered feelings. Elsewhere old love letters are ripped, with a sound ‘like a wasp/or a heavy sigh.’ Shards and barbs abound. Even an iris leaf has a blade.
Most of all, claws and beaks sever and tear. “What I Learnt from the Owl” casts the titular bird as a bladed angel, and from there avian ferocity recurs:
The bird plucked my heart, as if it were tearing Ripe berries from a bush.
Birds are wounded too, reduced to ‘matted feathers clotted against mulch.’ Throughout the collection, pain and suffering blur with beauty and nature, and birds provide apt symbols for it all. Frequently Saunders uses them to force us to feel: wings billow to mimic a pulsing heart, or ‘beat frantically’ in the solar plexus. Beaks and talons are allegories, for partings, for fighting. Even, in “Almost Raptors”, they stand for other poets, splitting the air as they recite.
Yet birds also lift the collection, as words rise on wings of their own. Descriptions showcase vivid language: A blackbird is ‘glossy and wet-ink black,’ while a heron resembles a sprouting bulb. There is a metallic chatter of goldfinches.
Feverfew flies into the clouds, word clouds: A nimbus blazes and feathers are cumulous. The heavens are where these poems seek to ascend. Swans are ‘on the brink of angel white’ in “Edge of Angelic”, but in truth angels are closer to the centre of this collection. Divinity is emblematic and unremitting. God may be out of reach in “The Emergency Call”, and wind turbines are ‘crucifixes stripped of Christ,’ but there are other deities available. Saunders revels in them, their meanings and mythologies.
Most prominent are the Greeks. Zeus, Dionysius and Ares all feature, along with Aphrodite and Hades of course. All are under analysis, as are Sisyphus and Prometheus, humans tormented under pernicious whims. And then there are monsters, such as the harpy, which brings us back to politics, and “The Benefit Minister’s Mythological Creature of Choice” – winged of course, ‘quick beak working deftly’ and ‘carrying a stink of carrion.’
These rich allegories should prove highlights for many, yet if the evisceration of government is not to your taste, there is still plenty here to tempt the palate. For all that there is cruelty here, and death, and ghosts and pain, really there are only words, poems that sing with lyricism, and beauty. I leave the final word to them:
Singing halleluiah with the small choir of the heart In the cool, white church that is this page. .
Jonathan Squirrell grew up in Whitby. He has penned (word processed) scripts, songs and short stories which have been published and performed everywhere from stages in village halls to BBC Radio 4. He also reviews fiction and poetry for Mad Hatter Reviews,