Dec 31 2022
Poetry review – CANNONBALL WITH FEATHERS: Rosie Johnston is impressed by the scope of Caroline Carver’s latest collection
Caroline Carver’s title poem ‘Cannonball with Feathers’ condenses many of the elements of this collection. She is our very own Action Woman on the ski slopes and thanks to an ‘unexpected mogul’:
I flew like a grouse bursting from cover I flew like the spangled lady fired from a gun to the top of the circus tent only here on the snow there seems no limit to how high I can go
She wonders if she won’t ‘land on an innocent child / or a tough old lady meandering downhill’. Her mind has time to play out over the beauties of snow on branches, to Galileo with the tower of Pisa and his feather, and ‘what my husband will make of me / taking to the sky like this’ before Galileo is back, ‘asking I mean / how long did you think you could stay up there?’
This is Oversteps Books at its playful best with a drawing of a miniature cannon in the corner of the page with a parrot perched on top. It is terrific company on a chilly evening by the fireside.
The collection’s first poem is titled ‘I was a child who loved parrots’ and takes us on Carver’s odyssey from conception when she was ‘still only the size of a small bat /comforted by darkness’ inside her mother who
swears I was born with stamp on my forehead made in New Zealand
By the time of her birth, Carver was in England and would live in Jamaica, Bermuda and Canada before she settled back in England (Cornwall) in 1989. Her poems take us to Norway, Copenhagen, London, the Bahamas, South Dakota, Warsaw, Transylvania, Bucharest and the Scottish isles. Carver is a climber and sailor as well as a skier, poet and Hawthornden Fellow. Furthermore, she has been poet in residence to the Marine Institute of the University of Plymouth (producing the exquisite collection Fish-Eaters during that time) and still works with Romanian students. Cannonball with Feathers is the widest ranging of Carver’s eight poetry books so far, more substantial than before, less ready to come to conclusions, mixing hints of secrets with her usual zest, wisdom and humour.
She is impressive at breathing warmth into those corner-of-the-eye moments that sum up such a lot and hover with us for decades. ‘Letter to my father’ describes how her father (‘we shared this world together only a short time’) taught her how to hold a bluetit softly in her child-hands to soothe it:
we walked those woods so many afternoons you talked of all the birds which moved so fast I never saw them
We learn in ‘the sunken trimaran’ that her father was rumoured to dive down to a wreck and rise again with the pipe in his mouth still lit:
sometimes I dispute this story ask myself how important is truth? though maybe it rounds out the picture of a man long gone who helped me negotiate overfalls whirpools find my way through the Raz de Sein have you noticed the pulling sound of water as it sloshes among rocks how it sounds like the sucking of a pipe?
The collection blends in a series of poems addressed to Carver’s Norway Sister. Again, much lies in the gaps. In one about a ‘festive birthday lunch’, Carver describes watching her mother with one of the hens. This spoke especially vividly to me as I remember my own grandmother doing this:
we watched as mamma went out gathered up one of the hens tucking it under her arm as if she cared for it before pulling its head away from its neck we heard the popping sound even from where we stood safe in the house fire blazing with newly- gathered pinecones the forest raging in early morning light
There is powerful storytelling in the longer poems too. ‘Edmonton disconnect’ establishes unease from the start with words like ‘tremor’, ‘falling’; and then, because ‘there’s no moon / somehow trees are making it darker than usual’, there is ‘no light’ until we reach:
the place where a jogger saw a naked foot sticking out from the bushes and now you can’t think of anything else you’re right where they found her
The haunting twist is held back from us until the poem’s two last words.
Carver’s footnote below ‘St Elias Mountains Yukon Territory’ tells us that, having celebrated its centenary in 1967, Canada invited its Alpine Club to climb and name twelve mountains in the Yukon, and that: ‘Amateur climbers like (the poet) were allowed to accompany the expedition’. So many years on, she is of course short on surrounding detail:
who was king in that year? or queen or whatever you like to name it.
Before long though, she’s describing painful falls and crawling, the agony of the descent. Then:
graceful and airy was how I’d felt up there now I returned to camp on all fours wondering if the valley grizzly had followed me please don’t eat my feet I said to him they were so good to me on the mountain
I laughed out loud. Carver is welcomed back to base with ‘the most precious drink / we’d carried’… ‘in a triumphal tin mug beer the best I ever had’ and with her usual sleight of hand closes the poem with this marvellous name-drop:
and he-who-led-the-first-ever-successful-Everest-expedition came and shook my hand 'no need to call me ‘sir’ he said
Carver’s talent is to combine easy construction and vocabulary with such vivid concision. One of her most moving is a long poem, ‘Talking to Alice’. There are too many beautiful sections to quote them all but this gives you the flavour:
Alice hunched like a hedgehog blows us a kiss from her cupped hand holds it out perhaps to be shaken to ask for help to wave at someone this hand has endured more hardship than is written in the whole of my vocabulary even the smallest finger is filled with courage
No subject matter is beyond this poet. In the final poem, ‘tomorrow is the question’:
no-one is left to ponder mathematical equations count seasons of the moon predict the next eclipse or touch each other
On that last page, a little sketch has landed of a feather, as light and exquisitely drawn as this poetry.
Reading Carver’s words is always time well spent. My favourite of her collections before this had been Tikki-Tikki Man (Ward Wood Publishing, 2012) where she deals delicately, so askance you can hardly see it, with the impact of a sexual predator on herself and her childhood friend. Cannonball with Feathers is broader in scope with every bit as much impact. In these days when the price of poetry collections is understandably rising, it is extraordinary value at only £8.00.
Rosie Johnston‘s four poetry books are published by Lapwing Publications in Belfast, most recently Six-Count Jive in 2019, with a fifth Off the Map due for publication in 2023. Her poems have appeared in Snakeskin, The Phare, London Grip, Culture NI, FourxFour, The Honest Ulsterman, Mary Evans Picture Library’s Poems and Pictures blog, Words for the Wild. Her poetry is anthologised by Live Canon, Arlen House, OneWorld’s Places of Poetry anthology, Fevers of the Mind and American Writers Review. She reads her poetry widely, most recently at Faversham and Gloucester Poetry Festivals. www.rosiejohnstonwrites.com