London Grip Poetry Review – Caroline Carver

Poetry review – CANNONBALL WITH FEATHERS: Rosie Johnston is impressed by the scope of Caroline Carver’s latest collection

Cannonball with Feathers
Caroline Carver
Oversteps Books
ISBN: 9781906856946
52pp 	£8.00

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:

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.