Anglo-Breton poet Claire Trévien’s collection The Shipwrecked House is a bewildering yet heart-wrenching composition of myth, life and loss. In returning to the sea as a central theme, the poet creates a seamless transition from her pamphlet Low-Tide Lottery to this, her newest work.
At first, these seemingly disjointed poems appear to follow no coherent pattern, but as the collection progresses one can begin to recognise the restless nature of the sea flowing through what seems initially to be the superficially fragmentary topics and styles.
Poems such as “Journey”, “our” and “or” all rely on an interesting technique to tie them more tightly to the central theme, Each of these follows on from the initial “Journeys of Evaporation”, and each one is crafted by reutilising pieces of the previous poem to forge a new story in a fresh poem, much like waves wearing away an object and slowly reducing it to nothingness, but also simultaneously and constantly creating something new.
With the addition of more landlocked poems, such as “Bread Cthulhu”, “Mushroom picking” and “Impression, Sunset” Trévien creates an intriguing balance, and the whole structure of the anthology echoes the constant struggle between land and water.
The poet introduces that subtle and slightly unsettling battle of the two elements in her first poem “Origin Story”, which acts not only as an effective gateway to the whole of her new collection, but also provides a strong base for further reading of her earlier work.
They were to place seaweed in my cot […]
Instead, they brought me heather’s bells
The inner conflict represented in that first poem appears to haunt the poet throughout the book, laying down the framework for her extensive and jolting thematic and stylistic changes, which tend to take place in very few words.
Trévien’s focus on ordinary, everyday detail as well as these aforementioned shifts allows her to address or allude to weightier topics in a surprising and subtle way without sinking the entire poem.. Consider these lines from “I Heart You”:
There are pictures of cats, newspaper cuttings
with words and letters blacked out […]
the man living in it never turns the light off.
Initial innocent descriptions of an utterly mundane object, the fridge, become unnerving when the reader briefly glimpses the wretched, unglamorous life beyond the narrator’s focal point. This bleakness is further reinforced by the importance of sound throughout the anthology; listen to “The Shipwrecked House II”:
Now your voice falls like a coin to the ocean’s floor
and the house is dragged apart by the fractures
of your smiles […]
Written as a performance piece, these poems in truth appear to lose some of their charm on the page, and even when simply read aloud, unaccompanied by the intended cadences and additional non-verbal sound effects of the welling of the sea. The lack is palpable in the written form, and the poems have a feeling of having been silenced. This lends an eerie effect to the entire collection and undoubtedly contributes to a darker interpretation of the collection.
The colloquial language and freeform style that Trévien utilizes however allows the reader to – almost – ignore the more cynical aspects of her work that occasionally break through the well-shaped exterior. It is likely that they are meant to entertain a reader or listener, and indeed these exquisitely crafted poems allow for myriad different readings due to their topical diversity, themes and techniques. Each reader is free to interpret them at will.
Although The Shipwrecked House at first appears rather confusing, as indicated by its paradoxical title, given the time and thought it deserves, it morphs into an intricate yet concrete whole. Claire Trévien’s varying style will keep readers on their toes, right to the final line.