London Grip Poetry Review – Linda France



Poetry review – TOOK MY WAY DOWN, LIKE A MESSENGER, TO THE DEEP: Edmund Prestwich admires the intricacy of Linda France’s sonnet sequence linking the paintings of Leonora Carrington with the experience of lockdown

Took My Way Down, Like a Messenger, To the Deep
Linda France
Blueprint Poetry Press
ISBN 978-1-7393695-0-7

Leonora Carrington’s surrealist paintings were avowedly important to the composition of the fifteen sonnets of Linda France’s Took My Way Down, Like a Messenger, To the Deep: in her introductory note she writes that at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, ‘The surreal art of Leonora Carrington acted as refuge and spell, holding up a mirror to the world’s deepening strangeness.’ Her endnotes link each poem to a particular painting, and the overall title of the sequence is the title of another of Carrington’s pieces. To most readers, though, and to me, if the poems are to be more than footnotes to the paintings they need to break free of them artistically. This they triumphantly do.

There’s a spell-binding force to France’s language from the beginning. Bizarre as the scene presented in the first sonnet may be, it’s built up with the definiteness of a painting in acrylics. Statements are simple, abrupt and absolute. ‘Alone’, ‘everything’, ‘perfectly’ and ‘all’ heighten the sense that the situation is being established in an intransigently absolute way. A run of stressed monosyllables in the second line adds metrical emphasis. ‘Like this’ both suggests that the speaker is thinking aloud, looking at her immediate situation, and draws us into sharing her point of view. Complicated and shadowy things are going on behind the mask of simple factuality, but they don’t detract from the definiteness of the impression:

Alone like this, everything but me
is green.  My shark tooth crown keeps me safe.
Perfectly bucolic, I am wrapped
in Friesian camouflage, on a rise
above the garden of my body,
all avenue, topiary and field.

What’s remarkable is the way shadowy spirals of suggestion play through the words without undermining the definiteness of the overall impression. ‘Alone like this’ relates in a strong, obvious way to the situation and sensations of the lockdown period, and ‘keep me safe’ relates equally obviously to the regular instructions in covid briefings. However, ‘Everything but me / is green’ takes us into more elusive suggestions. People will draw different ideas from the words. To me, difference between the speaker and everything around her heightens her isolation. There’s a sheer strangeness to the idea of everything’s being green. Within this strangeness, contradictory feelings stir. We may be reminded of the pastoral world (‘bucolic’) and think of Marvell’s quiet gardens, of ‘a green thought in a green shade’, of ‘golden lamps in a green night’. A sense of peace, of nature breathing more easily in the absence of cars, was indeed one side of the lockdown experience (there’s a particularly lovely example of France’s skill as a nature poet in the eleventh sonnet). Against that, the spikiness of the shark tooth crown, the camouflage, the need for safety, remind us how everything then was shadowed by fear, by illness and death, and of how we could find ourselves losing the ability to be comfortable in the physical presence of other people even as we yearned for its return. The sense of estrangement from other people’s bodies is reflected by an ambiguous sense both that the speaker has become separate from her own body and that her body has extended itself to become her whole attainable environment. For me, the comparison of a woman’s body to a garden echoes with medieval and renaissance texts, creating elusive ripples of suggestion. With its avenues and topiary it’s a very artificial garden, which to my mind connects with the loss of freedom, spontaneity and range that went with lockdown. As I said, different people will have different responses. I’m just mentioning my own for illustrative purposes. Later in the poem the poet’s sense being alienated from herself is evoked again in the lines

More birch than beast, I stand in a ring
at a distance from my own shadow.

Again, though, decoding the idea doesn’t express what’s really important to the poetry, the dreamlike strangeness of the sensation that the actual words give.

Much of the writing has a verbal beauty of another kind, one that is difficult to pin down but that I think will be widely felt. Rhythms are varied and thought moves in constantly surprising directions, but as one reads the poems statement after statement seems to settle into an unusually satisfying, solid and self-contained rhythmic shape. I think my last quotation illustrates that very clearly. That gives many statements the concentrated, though-provoking power of aphorism, making them reach beyond their specific contexts to suggest general reflections on life, with the twist that their surreally metaphorical mode gives them an unusually oblique and expansive suggestiveness.

So these poems are moving both for the vividness with which they evoke the shared and yet lonely experiences of the pandemic and also because what the poet brings back from her journey to the deep is a sharpened vision of aspects of life we normally take for granted or simply disregard. In the second sonnet, for example, both the speaker’s obsessive thinking about hospitals and her reflections on the need for interaction with strangers vividly recall my own feelings of the period:

I think I spend too much time thinking
about hospitals – how the word’s germ
is the Latin hospes, meaning guest
or stranger; how the world swivels on
a pin; how we need the company
of strangers to make our own strangeness 

At the same time, ripples of reflection from each of those thoughts apply fruitfully to life outside the pandemic period even if they arise with extra urgency within it.

The booklet as a whole is full of beautifully turned, piercingly phrased thoughts and images that flash themselves into the mind as discrete units. They flow together to create a cumulative impression of the fluctuations of the mind under the continuous pressure of the pandemic, sometimes swinging in contradictory directions. Formally they’re combined by all the poems’ being bound into a ‘crown’, in which the last lines of the first fourteen poems reappear, in order but occasionally very slightly modified, to form the final sonnet. This gives particular weight to the final line. The fourteenth sonnet ends

				While you, unstrung,
Weep for the dying.


So when the whole sequence ends with the last words of the fifteenth poem, ‘Weep for the dying: Alleluia’, it’s picking up on something that’s just been said – making the repetition emphatic – and it’s apparently converting an indicative statement into a final instruction. As you’ll see from my quotation, the effect is enhanced by a beautiful feature of the pamphlet’s production: part of each final line of the first fourteen sonnets is repeated, deeply inset and in italics below the poem, as a kind of fading echo that hangs in the mind. This adds a subtle but strongly cumulative layer of suggestion to the ones I’ve already mentioned. If you look at those echoing phrases, several of them carry a religious suggestion, particularly looking to the idea of the resurrection. And the emblem preceding and following the poems is a dazzling deep blue and gold reproduction of a section of the sky’s vault in Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. So in the end the whole pandemic experience opens out onto a religious perspective, though except for the last two the individual poems also work quite independently of it.