Jan 28 2023
Poetry review – THE KINGDOM: DA Prince explores the timeless locations created in Jane Draycott’s latest collection
Jane Draycott’s fifth collection seems to offer a sense of security in the title, something that is fixed and stable and ordered. But in the poems we both recognise the world within which she is writing and yet find it not quite as we know it, off kilter somehow. This is deliberate, drawing the reader in, sharpening the senses — and I should make clear from the outset that it’s a collection I like very much.
There’s no location or setting and so the kingdom — or country or state, whatever word we settle on for this place — is somewhere in the space between the poems and the reader’s imagination. It combines physical reality and other-worldliness. It also shifts between time frames, becoming timeless. Sometimes we are in the medieval world (Draycott has published a fine translation of Pearl, Carcanet, 2011), and sometimes in our own world of emails, phones and computer screens. In The Occupant (Carcanet, 2016) she explored liminal spaces of dreams, underwater worlds, unnamed cities in a nervous apprehension of how we might see the world. In many ways The Kingdom continues this exploration.
The poems confront those questions which have always taxed the individual: what our futures might be, and how we make our individual journeys towards death, and beyond — wherever that happens to be. Yet while these are poems of elsewhere, they take place in a world and time that could be our own as we move on from the worst of the Covid pandemic.
“The others’, the opening poem, appears to be set in present time —
Arriving last (having furthest to travel) I asked the others what brink or brim this was — the world under water, the flood itself flooded
The narrator is a survivor, as are the ‘others’, all drawn together on an edge, the ‘brink or brim’; it’s an unknown, somewhere beyond. We, the readers, are asking the same questions as the poet; we may call up memories of the River Styx (from classical literature) or, because we are ‘gazing up skywards’, of Heaven (a Christian image). The tone is hesitant, questioning
the greatest wonder of all being how they had called me there, the others, how I’d moved so much further away than I thought, how I might not have surfaced at all.
— and, above all, it’s gentle in tone. Wherever or whatever the Kingdom might prove to be, it’s not threatening or dystopian.
Taken in isolation the title poem appears to give more information but it also increases the sense of displacement and being out-of-time
I was hungry coming up from Kent resorting hyther after the summer
Language suggests we are partly in the medieval world: the narrator is ‘seeking herbegement’, she is ‘languissyng in the doorway’, she is asked ‘what eyleth thee woman?’ But the doorway is ‘behind the post office’ and she has to contend with predatory men
the men coming on to you the taxi drivers saying here jump in no no you don’t need no money
Is she seeking asylum? A refugee? This is Kent, the only named location, and I can’t set aside images of boats landing on the coast. She describes herself
I was a stranger turned half to stone seeking releyf in severe weather coming hyther in search of something oute of thys madnesse something to inherit.
There’s a Biblical echo, too: ’I was a stranger’. The Archangel Michael sends emails (in ‘Magpie’). For one speaker the village she travels from is ‘our rare Eden’. Such echoes flicker at the edges of poems, become part of the journeys within the poems. Travel and the trials of travelling are a recurring theme, as is departure: ‘Delayed by fog, I’m dreaming/ of the place I’m flying from’. Elsewhere
The Departure bar’s still crowded with the same souls arguing the toss, what’s wrong, what’s right, so hard to see, to know. [‘The quiet friend’]
In ‘The yard’ a group of people rise above an unnamed city in a hot-air balloon, ‘… as in our ears the spirits/ of the guy-ropes cried out and split.’ There is something unsettling about the land they leave, where the playgrounds are patrolled by police on horses. ‘Neverwinter’ opens with ‘Our missing train’s already in —/ Arrived, though not in any world we’re in.’ There are intimations of climate catastrophe — the floods, a quake, a darkness that envelops the adults and makes children fearful (‘Some children’).
There are emptied streets, scenes familiar from the heightened awareness that came with Covid-19., as ’Our town and the falcon’ shows
This is roomy country, and not just from the air: down here in town now we’ve all got several streets each to ourselves. I like to walk the place at dawn, as if I were the only person left on the planet.
Three poems carry epigraphs from artists who died during pandemics. ‘Behind closed doors’ overlays Titian’s death from plague in 1556 with echoes from our own times
Outside, contagion’s on the streets again, bent on self-replication. Tomorrow they’ll let us enter one by one, insist we keep our distance as Actaeon might have learned who strayed too near Diana, perfect android, immortal machine.
Apollinaire’s death from influenza in 1918, is paralleled by a car journey to ‘… the city, its botanic gardens, its overflowing hospitals,/ each of us wondering how long our luck would last’. Derek Jarman (HIV/AIDS, 1994) notes how ‘My calendar sends notice from the cancelled world.’
Draycott uses colours to convey difference and strangeness, and to suggest other kingdoms: ‘the kingdoms of the red and blue// and of the yellow with its scattered envoys’ (‘The long loft’). The ‘blue’ recurs often, as something that fades slowly as the collection nears its end. In ‘Close’ it’s an element of the woman described, with ‘her deep blue mind-cave’.
She made me pancakes and she gave me gin, she told me her stories from the road — their indigo hair, the palaces they lived in — she spoke to me in a language nearly but not quite my own like a cloud-show passing over country several miles away.
The book’s final poem, ‘The Experiment’ opens
Dearests I have arrived. Some things have already been taken: the small blue bowls and airmail stationery, the summer tablecloth (only slightly blue), and the half-light is now quite cleared.
The plural, ‘Dearests’, is significant because a number of poems have been addressed to an unspecified ‘you’, who might be singular, plural or even the self-reflective personal: at last, an answer. This poem is a culmination of all the journeys, all the messages and communications that have preceded it, still working within multiple layers of meaning. It has finality and reassurance, as the second stanza shows —
All I can say is, try when you come not to think of the dark: take the boat and do the experiment — you will have to put every ounce of what you know into it or it will never lift off or be carried across.
This is a collection that speaks to the reader’s doubts, uncertainties, fears, death-thoughts; there is no single reading and that, for me, makes it stronger. It recognises a fragmented, nervous, troubled world but also finds kindnesses, messages, comfort. This comes not only from the past —herbals, medieval hospitals — but from contemporary human needs to face disasters, to share, and to find our own versions of survival. It anticipates the future, as art should.