Published in 2013, the year which saw Michael Symmons Roberts’ Drysalter justly lauded, The Lost Boys bears a warm endorsement from Les Murray. However, Penelope Shuttle’s claim on the cover of the collection that Victoria Field is “that rare avis, the religious poet” rings somewhat hollow. Shuttle is on surer ground with “Place is the key”.
Born in London in 1963, Field has lived in Turkey, Russia, and Pakistan, and more recently she has enjoyed a residency at Truro Cathedral. This is her third poetry collection, and she is well-published, not only in verse but also in non-fiction, children’s work, drama and as a translator. She also works as a poetry therapist.
The poet’s Russian experiences surface in “Questions for Vera”, which despite her considerable understanding of that country does little to broaden our horizons – the over-used metaphor of the matryoshka doll, and references to samovars, black bread, our dacha and snow are perhaps the Russia that the non-visitor already knows. Similarly neither “Prague”, “Toronto” nor “Niagara” reveal anything new “Lake Orta, Ten Years on”, whilst playing true to those who know the Italian Lakes, and doubtless sound enough to those who do not, just felt too safe, and perhaps a little disappointing in such a well-travelled poet. Her sestina “Forty Days and Forty Nights”, however, pushed those boundaries further, transiting effectively between Russia and London.
Curiously, for all the far-flung influences, the riskier and consequently more intriguing poems formed closer to home.
I didn’t know you were giving me,
a girl with no home town,
the gift of Cornwall
(“I go back to May 1997”)
It is Cornwall which Field truly hymns all “surfers, tadpole-black and slick,” (January, Swanpool) and how it “knits regrets/into stout socks/for fishermen” (“String”). There she becomes braver, more adventurous n both subject and form. Who would expect a poet attached to a Cathedral to shape the delightful witty warmth of “Changing Lives” with its contented transvestite in Perranporth? Certainly, there are religious poems, and D.M. Thomas in particular is a strong and quoted influence. That doubting Thomas, the clergyman questing ceaselessly, offers an excellent lead into Field.
Christ raises his hand, blesses all that we are.
(“Walking to Rosslyn Chapel”)
If Thomas is present, so too are Sexton and Gerald Manley Hopkins, and the closer Field comes to home, even to the point of domesticity, the greater the risks she takes. Her beautiful opening poem, “Moonface”, is clear homage to Plath, and yet it also subverts that too-well known and tragic scenario. Where Plath took her own life, whilst carefully protecting her children, Field’s poem (and also the titular “Lost boys”) plays with a live maternal presence, aware of a ghosted “daughter I never had” and “her many brothers”. In a further echo of Plath, the moon, circles, the sea, bones, and colours are all recurrent motifs throughout this collection.
There is great richness in Field’s finely-honed extended metaphors. “Dead Beech Tree at Trebah”, the longest poem here, is a poignant elegy to the 7,500 men who left that Cornish garden bound for the D-day assault on Omaha Beach.
If at times, in the shrines and wells there may be a refuge in that safety again, then in poems like “Finding Myself in the Garden” pain and loss twist, tempering her verse, and there is also erotic imagery, and questioning sexuality explored, again on fairly local soil.
[…] the host arrived,
melted on my tongue, the flesh, the light,
her swinging pony tail […]
(“And Joy Befell Me”)
Then “Flight” astonishes –
I’m fascinated by the back
of his neck, the way it folds itself like
dough down and around his collar,
I want more of that voice – the one telling a more zinging truth of contemporary Penzance than it can tell of Prague’s tourist trappings. Settled in these islands, Field dares more, so let us hope she stays in Canterbury for a while … “sending/courage, like a scatter of stars”.