Oct 17 2023
Poetry review – ROPE OF SAND: Pat Edwards is intrigued by the shifting moods in Fiona Larkin’s questioning poetry
The title poem of this wonderful collection was highly commended in the Forward Prizes 2019 and some of its poems have also been commended in well-regarded competitions. So I was interested to encounter the work for myself. The opening poem “Beach” gets us off to a great start with a rather lovely evocation of all the elements that might make up different kinds of sand. Ending as it does with the words ‘down on your knees’, there is a natural segue to the next poem invoking prayer. However, the reader senses darker themes emerging, ‘no harmony here but / discordance’. Also, we understand how unreliable sand is, with its movement and instability, so perhaps the scene is being set.
At this early stage the poet includes two poems referencing the maternal, but neither does so with warmth. Rather there is a colder indifference which again feels dark in tone. There follows the title poem “Rope of Sand”, an intriguing piece written in two separate sections, each using non-rhyming couplets. The narrative describes children who live next door to one another and highlights the difference between the sandpits they play in:
Slapdash, mine, a scrubland sandpit, a Catholic sandpit, a squabble of brothers. Hers, a Protestant sandpit, a nap-time, tidy-up time, ethical sandpit.
The focus on difference, unresolved, feels deeply significant and terribly sad, especially when followed by another poem with religious overtones that talks of a woman, ‘a pyre of herself’, later snuffed out.
There is a subtle shift in technique in a set of poems that reference the body, its defects and vulnerability. Still this undercurrent of foreboding lingers and is found in the extraordinary use of lines scored out in “My Parents’ Admissions”:
A cough that failed to leave, a wheeze. I hacked into my handkerchief.We met at a dance.
Clearly now we are amidst poems about tuberculosis that play on breath, air, infection of the lungs, the very organs meant to keep us alive now deemed ‘unreliable’.
We then move on again to “Lent”, ‘fuck yous aimed at winter’, the chalice, confession, halos and crowns, the poet seeming utterly comfortable with all this religious imagery. She revels in the guilt, the blame, the both essential and dispensable pull of life lived to moral codes often set by men.
In “Transformation Consultant”, the poet considers the expectation to conform, to seek change in oneself:
He orders his groupers to regroup, commands the party to follow him around, lips oh-ing in his wake. I see myself as a fish called curmudgeon, almost convincing myself, and hide where I can, near towers of polished pebbles, or skulk between the plastic arch, darkening the spaces between with my bile.
What deep mastery of language and extended metaphor to conjure this imagined consultation and the ‘fishbowl’ falsehood, the imbalance of power and the distortion of reality. This prose poem style really suits the poet and her discourse, and she returns to it in “Leave-taking” where she muses on endings, the hold of the past, the inevitability of having to be ‘somewhere else’.
The collection responds to just that inevitably and moves on to a section entitled “No Common Measure” which is, I think, a reference to poetic form and cadence. It feels very much like a cleansing:
Saltwater erases all my shell cathedrals, my rock-pool spoils, till something in my permeable pores floats up to meet the rain
The nine poems in this sequence use the poetic form of cadae, with a precise pattern of lines amounting to a total of fourteen in each poem. To write in this way must require huge discipline and certainly great craft so the poet is to be applauded for her achievement. I may be wrong but, by the end of the sequence, I felt a parting either between people or from a former life, maybe both. The final poem “Saturation Point” depicts this as salt in water:
But the mix requires parity: we share no common measure. You won’t speak, but brush away grains of me left in the sheets.
The collection continues to exploit water, the sea, as it journeys onward, carrying with it a sense that, despite everything, the past is hard to erase. But it is the imagery of wood and wooden structures that emerges in “Global Aphasia” where the poet describes the struggle a stroke patient might have, and a daughter’s longing for the ‘sheltering warmth / in a dovetail of breath’. Language, how we use it, lose it, how it feels on our lips, is often evident.
The poet remains interested in, even haunted by, the possibility of religious belief and of what this might mean when life is coming to an end. In “Deliverance” I think she plays with testing the theory ‘with a finger to risk / the shock of something live’, and challenges her own ‘disbelief, is Gd – / hosanna, through gritted teeth.’
Throughout this ambitious and fascinating collection, the poet both marvels at nature and the complexity of human life, and also despairs of its flaws and inadequacy in the face of disease and dysfunction. There are hopeful moments and the recognition of renewal, but the poet cannot escape the fact of the ‘daisy’s uncertainty’ and the way light ‘darkens in shadow’. The poet has amassed nearly sixty poems in this impressive work, demonstrating risk-taking and a compulsion to ask questions about the most difficult of subjects. Her conclusion? Like a rope made of sand, nothing can be tethered forever, but much ‘might be learnt from an edge’