An arresting title offers a strong launching place for any book but the reader who tries to find the source of this particularly wonderful one will have to wait. The titular poem, unusually, is the very last in this, Ellen Phethean’s most recent, collection. By the time the reader finds it however, she will have gleaned a significant picture from the narrative of these adroitly sequenced poems. I say “she” deliberately. Her Muse is certainly male, and I suspect women will be Phethean’s most empathetic and intrigued readers here. The patient are rewarded.
Wise women know: give her time,
she’ll gift her ruby harvest.
Praise the quince.
Initially at least, this is a book to be read as it is plotted. In the wake of a double bereavement – that of the poet’s husband and of Julia Darling, her co-founder and collaborator at Diamond Twig Press – Phethean’s poetry leads far more subtly and dangerously than early impressions may suggest.
Get up. Get up and walk into the day.
Truthfully, at the outset both the cover and the typesetting irked me. Even to my aging eyes the jacket information seemed set an almost insultingly large point size. This move by Red Squirrel surprised me, as poet Gerry Cambridge’s typography is something I greatly respect. At first I felt just a little too cooried, sensing myself being walked through familiar themes by the collection’s initial poems. I wanted to be taken out of what seemed a just too comfortable zone. Somehow “leaves turned brown” didn’t push me far enough, and in combination with the type, I confess to feeling coddled. I should have trusted the conspiratorial wisdom of both these generous poets sooner. Soon “everything you think you know/ distorts into question marks [.]” and “memory itches like a phantom limb/ you cannot scratch.” As the collection progressed, the ease of the good simile firmed more often into tougher metaphors. That way with metaphor is finely honed in pairings of people and plants, insects or animals. The four-part poem “The Arid Collection” is particularly nuanced, and at its heart, two sonnets each with an early volta.
“Are you sitting comfortably?” she asks in “Listen with Mother”. Well, arguably, you wouldn’t be for long. Something far more subversive is going on here. By now “this beast is gaunt/from want, like holding hurt too long”. The reader will also hear an accomplished sound artist and in evidence throughout. Rhyming “textuality” with “sexuality” successfully does take a certain chutzpah. The taut list poem “Not a Tallboy” sits opposite the aptly harrowing and wonderful “Miscarriage, Half Term”. By now, there is no cosiness, not even in the title.
[…] to crawl
the carpet’s swirling path,
through forests made of legs.
So often, however, the great wonder of these poems is how the poet unexpectedly uncorks them, also true of this collection in its entirety where a genie escapes. Mistress of the last line, or the final killer couplet, Phethean shoots the unwary reader, carrying them onto the next poem perhaps, but certainly somewhere they hadn’t planned to go.
His words were an A&E call
from the ambulance ride of his life.
There are indeed big life and death issues here, but many of these poems also brim with sly humour, with witty observation. Consider the marvellous picture of the gathering of patients in the hospital grounds “feet eaten by fluffy dogs”, and again after all that fun, the delicious finish –
Imagine if one kept on wheeling
up the road, going home.
Imagine indeed. Take that journey. Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman?
It waits in the basket, insouciant,
round of limb and buttock,
furry as a doe’s back.
That November fruit has both bite and perfume, and is, after all best eaten slightly bletted. What’s not to like about that?