Critically acclaimed poet, and former Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Dundee (2003-5), Colette Bryce was born in Derry, and grew up during the Troubles. The Whole and Rain-domed Universe is a retrospective impression of that time, a keenly-felt and often poignant memoir of childhood and family life, set against the backdrop of a deeply divided community.
One comes to this collection deeply intrigued by both the Milton-esque title and the compelling cover graphic of an all-seeing eye in mystic blues and greens. A lens initially comes to mind; a thought vigorously reinforced by the imagery of the “rain-domed universe”. This line is from arguably the most important poem in the book, “Derry”. The entire collection hinges upon this almost epic 24 stanza narrative verse. Bryce recalls:
I thought that city was nothing less
than the whole and rain-domed universe
This sets the scene for what is to come: a child’s experience of the universe, recollected and fragmentary. At times, extraordinary events are seen as ordinary from a child’s perspective. Fraught situations, such the routine searching of Republican households by British soldiers, are tackled by Bryce with little sentimentality. Her restraint and infallible word choice only add to the tension in her work. In “The Brits”, she explores this scenario, first from a child’s perspective, and then in a more metaphysical, adult manner. As with many of her poems, the focus begins and ends with the mother archetype. “My mother spoke;” and the soldiers laid down their weapons before searching the children’s room,
…thunder[ing] up the stairs,
filling our rooms like news of a tragedy.
In the second stanza, the speaker plays with the notion of the men being toy soldiers, which she can dress in high street fashions, “the strip of ordinary sons and brothers.” The final line is incisive and telling,
I’d like to hand them back to their mothers.
Given time and space, memories of any situation can become distorted through the adult lens, and doubt creeps in. This is a major issue with any kind of memoir, and Bryce does not shy away from addressing the issue reliability or shifting interpretations of reality. The sometimes dream-like quality of her work is further enhanced by multiple references to items which can distort one’s perspective; televisions (“the lilac light of the news”), mirrors, and mirror balls. In “Magic Eye”, she uses the analogy of a magic eye pattern to suggest concealment and subterfuge. The convex mirror in “Your Grandmother’s House”, suggests a skewed version of society. In this poem, the father has moved out of the family home and is living with the grandmother. Everything is “rescaled” and redefined, the altered domestic situation juxtaposed against the television news of child murder and violence.
The focus of this collection shifts with microscopic precision: zooming in on events of huge domestic importance, panning out to survey the full political spectrum of the time. Bryce achieves all of this with the minimum of fuss. Far from being Milton-esque, the “rain-domed Universe” of this collection is crafted with a wonderfully pared-down structure.
The Whole and Rain-domed Universe is a worthy addition to the Forward Prize shortlist. It is a complex and cleverly-structured account of a perilous time, and of an often difficult personal journey. Each poem offers a new experience, one minute recalling forgotten elements of seventies schooldays (Green Cross Code, the preoccupation with Nostradamus), the next offering a disturbing insight into the brutality of the Troubles. More than that, Bryce cunningly holds a lens up for the reader, inviting them to inspect their own childhood, for better or worse. Bryce’s new collection definitely to be included on any poetry lover’s reading list.