If love and loss are perhaps the most commonplace of human experiences, they are also amongst the most difficult to write well about. How is one to commemorate the shared intimacy of a relationship unique to lovers, “themselves absolutely, beyond imitation”, to craft fine phrases when so swallowed up in sorrow that “no one can hear… in spite of the howls”? Burying the Wren, Deryn Rees-Jones’s wonderfully lyrical elegy to her late husband, the poet and critic Michael Murphy, is undertaken with an assuredness of touch that comes with telling it slant: using the defamiliarisation afforded by poetic line and image to acknowledge bereavement and to celebrate life and love.
Burying the Wren takes its title from the Celtic winter solstice ritual of renewal in which a wren is mounted on a decorated pole and paraded through the streets by “wren boys”, mummers singing songs for money to bury the wren. Linked with the earth as their Latinate name, troglodytes, implies, wrens spend time on and in the ground.As Rees-Jones also observes, they are noted for their “loud and complex song, sometimes as part of a duet, even in wintertime.” Wrens form part of the collection’s complex animal imagery situated on the cusp between human and animal, the past and present, the fantastical and real. “Dogwoman”, inspired by Paula Rego’s painting of the same name, works associatively to suggest the fierce, ranting inarticulacy of pain and longing imagined as dog-like and explored in canines both literal and mythological: “faint stink, dog-breath” waiting for the master’s presence, “god of the dead,// wide-mawed, tongue lolling”. “Trilobite” envisions an underworld “stern familiar”, a ghostly ancient presence imagined as part alter-ego, part secret indulgence, while “Slugs” recasts the slime trails of nightly “gastropods” from the soil as “slivery cast off Isadora’s”. Soil, ground and earth are not associated with death or burial as such but, as in “Three Glances at a Field of Poppies”, with seeding life: “imagining a life/pushed into form”; night does not bring only pain and death but dreams and imaginative life. Similarly, fossils do not connote extinction but softened parts imprinted on stone, figuring a transformative dialogue between two elements, or as in the case of lovers, between two selves. “Hallucigenia” hails those altered states, comparing them with writing: “my mouth now, line by line,/ is emptied into yours, becomes a different silence from the first, in commas, dashes and full stops”.
Rees-Jones’s interests in feminist theory are hinted at in the collection’s probing of liminal states, the references to “dog days”, dogs (Adrienne Rich’s poem “Fox” as well as Rego) and canines “dancing on hind legs” (patriarchal attitudes to women writers in A Room of One’s Own); with mothering; womanly embodiment; with knowing and seeing as give-and-take processes, and not simply as subject-object relations. Modernist concerns are evident in the collection’s epiphanies and its celebration of fragments, subjectivity and the imagination as fundamental. Burying the Wren emphasises the dialogic, the relational and the transformative: the impact of one life on another as lovers, as mothers and as friends. The human self is sometimes the animal other and, at times, “outside turns inner” as in the marvellous “Persephone”. A hymn to the Greek goddess who moves seasonally between the underworld and the world above, poetry is also “love’s work” learning to “slip inside my dreams:// to hold my face up to the rain,/ move from one world to another.” While some of the poems might seem somewhat overly precious (“Daughter III”, “Couvade”) or just a little self–indulgent in their repetitive listing of attributes (“Truffles”, “Dogwoman”), almost all in the collection contain creative pauses and line-endings, haunting lines and imagery, “metaphors to war against the dark”. If, as Elizabeth Bishop suggests in her villanelle, the art of losing is pretty damn hard to master, the “fierce singing” in Burying the Wren makes it possible to imagine that death is not the end.