Dec 12 2022
Poetry Review – TOUCHED: Paul McDonald finds Ian Marriott’s poetry both reflective and attentive to the natural world
I was excited to see this new chapbook from Ian Marriott, having read and enjoyed his first full collection, The Hollow Bone, which won a Cinnamon Press Debut Collection Award in 2017. I enjoyed the sensitive way he explores nature in that book, and his ability to capture its otherness: he registers its mystery and extremity, and relishes his connection to it. This new collection has a similar focus, but here the natural world becomes a context for reflections on personal trauma, and a rich source of metaphor for self-analysis.
In the sixteen part opening poem, ‘The Hurting’, the subject seems trapped, both by his own unspecified pain, and his sense of a divided self. He ‘plays and replays / his loop of pain’, and is riven by contradictions: he is ‘Both oppressor / and oppressed’, ‘the bully, and abused’, and his task is ‘to unravel / this tangle of selves’. Images from nature help unpack and interrogate this entrapment and division: he is presented, among other things, as a ‘perilous’ pond-skater on a ‘thin meniscus’, a python ‘throttling its own’ ‘lost cause’, the victim of a ‘trap-door spider’, a three legged dog, and a scorpion ‘braced for attack’. Gradually, however, trauma becomes an opportunity as well as a burden – ‘a gift bestowed’ – and in the final sections the speaker finds routes to reconciliation, even happiness:
as now I enjoy the small things most breakfast croissants warmed in the oven the scent of coffee climbing the walls or warmth of my dog in the early morning knowing nothing and everything of what is to come.
The closing oxymoron is typical of Marriott: while contradictions torment him, they can also offer insight, even solace, particularly when he is able to occupy a space between seemingly incompatible alternatives: like his pond-skater, he frequently dwells on a ‘thin meniscus’ between one thing and another.
For Marriott, contentment can reside in unmediated engagements with nature, as in ‘Umbilical’, a poem inspired by the time he spent hanging from a mountain in a portaledge tent during a storm. When asked ‘why do you do it?‘, the speaker responds:
for a few days of animal knowing, the joy of a body at home in itself?
Again, the poet achieves insight in nature, and something akin to a pure experience in extremity: between earth and sky, life and death. In ‘a few days / of animal knowing’, he circumvents the ego, effacing the distinction between the self and the exterior world. While the closing question mark implies uncertainty, it’s clear that ‘animal knowing’ attracts Marriott, and this is evident again in a poem like ‘After Heidegger’’, which I quote in full:
Walking upon the open moor my dog has no eye for a pretty view, occupied, only, with matters at hand, the flushing of a grouse, scent of hare, or whippet in heat who passed this way three days ago – and I can only write these words, the scent of dwelling long misplaced, rhymes of vistas long and fair, but not the clay beneath my feet.
The speaker laments his disengagement from nature, ‘the clay beneath [his] feet’ having been replaced by second order representations: the words he writes, and the ‘rhymes of vistas long and fair’. He appears to envy his dog’s absorption with the world of the senses, the pure experience akin to that found in the portaledge tent earlier. Marriott continues to ponder Heidegger in another poem, ‘Being and Time’, which opens,
It came on slowly with the passing of friends, hourglass catching its own reflection
This seems to be about transience, and the idea that death gives life meaning. The human experience – what Heidegger calls Dasein – is different to that of animals because, unlike us, they don’t live with an awareness of death – life’s ‘hourglass’. In the closing stanzas Marriott explores the relationship between life, death, and meaning further, albeit in an ambiguous way:
A sunset darkens to that starry night, there is something here which was not before.
Phrases like ‘passing of friends’ and ‘starry night’ allude to the death that defines human life – the ‘something here / which was not before’. But what is that ‘something’, which starry night is ‘that starry night’, and to what extent does the poet depart from the atheism of an existentialist like Heidegger? To me the phrase ‘starry night’ suggests both the birth of Jesus, and Van Gogh’s painting – religion and art – the allusion adding another dimension to his theme, and weight to this intriguing poem.
As in The Hollow Bone, Marriott’s writing is controlled, economical, and emotionally charged; his short lines slow down the reading process, particularly in the long opening poem, inviting us to savour his lean, fluent language, and his vivid, potent imagery. This new collection is certainly as good as the first, and I loved it. Touched achieves a felicity of touch that’s both measured and intense: the strong sense of someone who pays attention to his world, and who invites us to do the same.