London Grip Poetry Review – Anne Symons


Poetry review – SHIFTING SANDS: Chris Hardy enjoys the way that Anne Symons explores the human element in some familiar and unfamiliar stories


Shifting Sands
Anne Symons
Littoral Press
ISBN 978-1-912412-55-6

This collection is divided into two sections, “Desert Paths” and “Tideway”, with thirteen poems in each. The connections between the two are story (whether that be myth or memory) an accessible linguistic style, and a determination to remember ordinary, forgotten, lives.

“Desert Paths” addresses Biblical tales but resurrects the women in these profound narratives, who were there but not mentioned, or sidelined. “Daughters of Eve” speaks for them

Unnamed sisters
the valleys are littered with our bones.

Name us
and call us to life. 

In “Lot’s wife” we are shown what she gave up in order to obey her husband,

It was hard when he said we should go
abandon the garden I planted
beside the Jordan ..

We also learn what her daughters endured: ‘we long for sweet water .. and our mother’s arms’.

In “Sarai watches Hagar”, we are asked to consider how Sarai would have reacted to Abram bringing the slave girl Hagar into their home, ‘I could smell her fear … she flatters me … Abram owns us both’. Elsewhere Symons invites us to think about Moses’s older sister, another lost yet central figure. In ten couplets we learn how she helps with his birth and makes the basket which saves him from the Pharoah: ‘We left him/ when the wind was talking in the reeds ..’ Moses’s survival leads of course to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (and all that has followed from it up to the present day),

In this section the lyric poems are mostly in two- or three-line verses, using precise imagery and language, limited metaphor and simile, to create on the page a sense of what life was like in those hot, desert lands. As already mentioned, most of the poems revisit famous women from the Old Testament; but “Desert Paths” concludes with a poem imagining what the ‘woman taken in adultery’ (John 8: 1 – 11) felt when Jesus got her (and himself) out of a difficulty. Jesus was challenged to break Biblical Law, by forgiving the sin which that Law required to be punished by stoning. But Jesus pauses, writes in the dust, and then says, ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. What might the unlettered girl, the unacknowledged centre of the parable, have made of the ethical trap she was the bait for, surrounded as she was by violent men and facing imminent death?

The second section, “Tideway”, continues the use of iambic pentameter or tetrameter in two- and three-line stanzas but expands the latter in places. The lines are carefully arranged, each keeping a rhythm and moving on, or coming to a clear stop. Here we have more legends from the past which still resonate today; but now we are in Penwith, farthest South West Cornwall. These are poems full of the sea and the weather:

March 25th A clear sky and light winds ….
the sea shakes out its foil against the sun ….
clambering the coastlands of our lives. 
                                                           (“Postcards from Penwith”)

After a poem reflecting on a recent disaster, “The Solomon Browne”, we have a series of poems filled with affectionate, vivid memories of strong-minded, self-sacrificing parents and grandparents and of neighbours tending their gardens, living a simple way of life unchanged for centuries,. A mother making a fire, kneeling with her back turned away, asks, ‘How many men have you slept with?/ Lights a match, sets flame to paper’ – two lines that well illustrate the method this poet employs to reveal a whole drama and history in a few words, (“Building a fire”).

These rich recollections, full of colour and meaningful imagery – for instance, an ash tree growing on a carpenter’s grave – are presented to us because the poet is able to resurrect essential elements of the past by using words learned in the childhood home. ‘Words tumble onto the table between us/ slide off the edge/…. we are ankle deep in words./ …. I sweep them up/ …. so in days to come/ I can …. hear your voice.’ (“In the Garden at Penlee”).

The book ends with the powerful, beautiful, “Wave”, an elegy for the death of a beloved father, who accepts his death but feels, maybe, there is more, ‘When he asked me if he was dying, I said, “Yes, I’ll miss you Dad.” He said, “I’ll miss you too”.’

Shifting Sands is a most accomplished and engaging collection.