Poetry review – A WOVEN ROPE: Sue Wallace-Shaddad follows the thread of human experience running through these poems by Jenna Plewes
I very much enjoyed this collection. Written in three parts, it covers the span of life. The first part deals with birth and childhood, the second part comprises a more diverse set of poems and the third part focuses on the ageing and loss of a parent. The title for the collection comes from a line in the poem ‘Self’:
The rim of the world’s a woven rope you’ll wrap around your wrist to keep you safe.
This couplet seems to me to an excellent example of how Plewes uses simple language in a powerful way. Her visual images are very evocative; they draw the reader in. In ‘Feral’, a poem about expecting a child, Plewes writes ‘You will lie kitten-soft in my lap chasing a dream.’ In ‘Missing You’, morning is described as ‘soft as rising dough’. In ‘Neighbours’, we read of light ‘buttery as breakfast toast’. Sound imagery is also used effectively. In ‘Soundings’, the landscape is conjured up through sound and lack of sound:
Mist muffles their words, only the cold slap of water, clack and hum of rigging, loneliness of a curlew.
A strong sense of memory threads through the collection. The poems in the first section are very accessible, capturing the shared experience of many parents. In ‘Father-love’, it is easy to picture the scene:
Already you cast a shadow behind you; soon you’ll push away his hand, slide off his lap, stand unsteady, legs wide as your smile.
In ‘Mirror Image’, there is an affectionate description of an older child making faces in the mirror while her hair is being braided:
You wrinkle the bridge of your nose, pretend you’re a rabbit, bite your bottom lip.
In ‘Flight’ the girl has grown up and is ready to venture away from home like a ‘swallow / flying through the house’. The poem ends ‘How I followed her looping dance / till she was out of sight.’
Plewes looks to nature for many of her images and metaphors. The first poem ‘Birth’ describes the strength of a seed emerging and then contrasts this with the first breath of a child ‘my skinned rabbit’:
your ribcage flutter light as pollen on the wind.
The second section of the collection helps mark the transition away from childhood. The first poem, however, ‘The One They Pick On’ describes a schoolgirl affected by bullying who is ‘soft as a leveret’,
huge-eyed, heart thudding at every snapping twig, hugging the margins of life.
There is a sense of darkness in some of the poems in this section. ‘Selling the Family Home’ details some uncomfortable bedroom memories, leaving the reader to imagine what might have happened there. ‘Smile’ has a door slamming and ‘broken china’. The poem ends ‘smile, above all smile’. A dark wood where ‘Fears / burrow under bramble wires’ is a place for escape in ‘Private Woodland No Trespassing’. In ‘Power Cut’ Plewes creates visceral impact with the anthropomorphising of wind that ‘ hisses through its teeth / shakes the house like a rat.’
The final section is very poignant, charting the decline of the poet’s mother. A ‘worn’ family rug in ‘The Tartan Rug’ represents ‘memories fading into the background’. The description in this poem’s second stanza links back to the ‘woven rope’ in the title of the collection:
Caught in the weave, egg sandwich crumbs, wine stains and candle grease. A nibbled corner mended with pink wool.
In ‘Downsizing’, books will provide an ‘anchor’ while ‘Paintings can go’. This is in contrast to the sentiment in an earlier poem ‘From a Safe Distance’ where a watercolour has the role of ‘a familiar dream she travels / morning by grey morning.’ I enjoyed the bird imagery in ‘Forecast’, representing a close mother/daughter relationship:
two foraging birds in a wintry field, unearthing memories, pecking at scraps of gossip, sharing berries of laughter.
The poem ‘Living’ outlines the mother’s concern to leave everything in order but also gives a sense of remembering the past.
Now when there’s nothing left to say and all the lists are done, she carefully unwraps each day, strokes the wonder of it with fingers gentle as a child’s.
The hands of an elderly person are tellingly described in the poem ‘Hands’: bones like knotted roots / pushing through the skin’. There is mention of ‘the ropes of childhood / swung to the sun and back’ and we are told that the hands are now ‘whorled with a maze of memories.’ The reducing lines in the poem ‘Her Journey Haunts My Dreams’ reflect loss of memory:
memories are disappearing slipping through cracks that open up day by day
In ‘Wick’, ‘Shifting shadow-patterns / people the walls with memories’, as Plewes remembers a cremation service and casting ashes on Vixen Tor. She is left with a flame in ‘an empty room’. I particularly liked the final two lines of the next (penultimate) poem ‘Her Shadow’s Borrowing My Clothes’. They give such a sense of presence and absence: ‘So much of her is in the bone of me, / a shadow-trace against the light.’
The final poem in this section neatly bookends the collection, returning to the theme of seeds: ‘92 seedlings grown and planted out / in memory of Mum’. In this collection, life turns full circle.