Mar 8 2023
Poetry review – A POCKETFUL OF CHALK: Louise Warren is happy to accompany Claire Booker on a poetry walk through the Sussex countryside
In A Pocketful of Chalk Claire Booker has conjured up the South Downs in a sequence of poems which brim with weather, exquisite detail, and sense of place. This book is a love letter to the sweeping landscape she has taken to herself and made home. Every phrase is earned, every stanza and sentence finally honed, nothing is wasted in these poems and each image sings.
Evening shadows make monsters of sheep even a crow has its life stretched the sun raises me up like a beanstalk –- sends my head grazing on the slope opposite.
Booker inhabits the poems. On her long singular walks she becomes field, pebble, sky, shadow. She tells us, looking up at Smock Mill: ‘I could peel my whole length, roll me /under my arm as a keepsake/never before have I covered so much ground/ I let myself float in the beaks of birds.’
There is a Gerald Manley Hopkins zeal and lyricism to the poems and sometimes I catch the influence of Sylvia Plath. Booker is certainly one of the best nature poets I have read recently with the earthiness of Ted Hughes and the wondrousness of Alice Oswald. Like Oswald she uses her precise poetic lens to zoom in on the smallest thing. In “Paperwhite Narcissi “ for example she asks
Where do they keep their sensual hearts? what blissful vertigo – to quench the burn of your touch in their green reflective water or spiral down each delicate carpel and hang on clusters of moist seeds -- almost weightless
She can also zoom out and show us something from a distance. A tractor in a field is slowly revealed: ‘Only when a cloud swabs the soil, /do I see yellow wheels /and a shirt that must be the driver/Less than half the field is tilled/wheat stubble jittering in the wind’. With a wonderful phrase like ‘Only when a cloud swabs the soil’, Booker again astonishes with her finely crafted imagery. Such tight writing avoids anything sentimental or pastoral. This is rural England in all its muddy ordinary yet extraordinary beauty. I am reminded of the Eric Ravilious paintings of the South Downs, their rolling slopes and steep cliff edges, a view glimpsed through a train window, the corner of a garden.
Childhood is also visited. The memory of a white horse, a reworked nursery rhyme, as in “Hey Diddle Diddle, is transported to a Sussex scarp:
I watched a heifer almost touch the waning crescent as it sailed across day like a gasp she arched her back in a reckless act of optimism straining to launch herself over the barbed wire and up towards new possibilities more luminous than chalk.
Booker’s particular talent makes you see things differently. Her gaze is unique and there is a lightness and earthiness to her language. I laughed out loud as I read the poem titled “Call of Nature”.
A wise old ewe (she’s weathered some winters) watches me pee, square on to the intrigue I watch the amber bluster under the bridge of my legs it disappears into the once in a lifetime scrim of grassy chalk when I rise with a zip she’s still there.
Booker is confident in her subjects, revealing herself as a knowledgeable naturalist (she has a background as a herbalist and it shows): ‘Dandelion clocks are tonsured: gibbous, sickle to blind stub/their seeds rise on a waft of wild garlic and swaying dock.’
Other poems in the collection range through different subjects, from a Tibetan Vajra bell to the museum of childhood or trip on a night bus. In one of more personal poems there is a visit to the poet’s father in a nursing home. What begins almost sweetly with ‘Cellophane rustles around the chocolate rabbit/ I’ve brought him. /I place it carefully on the bed’ suddenly veers to a grim, somewhere else ‘Happy Easter I say, wishing him dead.’ This rhyming of bed and dead is so simple and powerful, so shocking in its honesty. You sense the conflicting emotions here, the love and the hopelessness.
Love runs through the work, as does the sea. Again and again we find ourselves returning to the beating of waves below, to the moon, to stones and the chalky earth, to birds and flowers. Booker turns these images upside down and inside out with her delicious phrasing as in this description of a heron:
Legs a trail of sticks instincts weaving wild nest nest nest we’ll plug it with eggs small beaks gulping sky-fish.
She sometimes includes other people in her poems, but for me she is best on her own, stalking the grassy uplands, alert and observant. She passes her observations to us through the perfect prism of her poetry, so that we can all have a pocketful of her chalk.