‘When l look back now at that time, six months after my husband died, I barely inhabited myself. I was as ghostly as the ghosts I never encountered. I had left, as he died, something of my own body behind.’ (‘Fires’)
In this, her fifth collection, Deryn Rees-Jones has much to ask of the muse of lyric poetry. Those who are familiar with the painfully beautiful Burying the Wren, will know some, but not all, of the biographical trauma which has lead to Erato. There are many bereavements underscoring this collection, not least the resonating, searing mourning for the poet’s late husband, but also the older, and never truly buried, grief for her stillborn brother. The experience of loss (and particularly premature loss), the myriad emotions it carries: confusion, fury, shock and yes, sorrow are explored in incisive and searching ways. This examination of ‘flatlands of grief, inpouring, nonfeeling,/hauntology, syncope, time-stopper, dumb apostrophe’ is both forensic in its close attention, and yes, it is deeply lyrical.
Rees-Jones’ painful voyage through the continuing stages of sadness tries to comprehend the incomprehensible and so contains many dichotomies. Fires and scars abound, and there is significant decay, with hopefully regenerative seeding. The reader who expects the doxologies of flowering in that decay, and has expectations of any emergent phoenix will find that hope comes sparingly and late. There is a significant investigation by this poet, particularly adept in narrative, into memory, re-imagining and forgetting.
Our brains are made to forget.
in a past that hadn’t happened
Even the erasure poem, the penultimate work in the collection, has ghosts of the underlying type under the blackout. Nothing is ever fully erased.
Though a plea to the lyric muse, a great many of these poems are prose poetry; nonetheless the lyric emerges and the line between the two forms seems increasingly thin. Often, prose poems offer such a solid shape, a certain kind of assertiveness over the white space, but in Rees-Jones’ hands, arguably, there is greater negotiation with the page. These have a note-like, fragmentary quality, building research and thoughts. They ask questions of both the living and the departed, be they family members, or Bishop, Ovid, Kristeva and Woolf, or mythological figures. Flesh and blood daily life appears in home scenes, with some very beautiful imagery, including the very lovely portrait of the poet’s son ‘adrift on a prayer of football cards and dinosaurs’. There are less welcome intrusions, such as Trump holding May’s hand on the televised news and at such points, Rees-Jones taps into a certain zeitgeist. ‘I thought about truth and I thought about lies, I thought about love/and all its erasures.’ ‘A landscape has become a conversation’, but readers would be unwise to imagine that that conversation will be a light or comforting one as ‘mountains, godlike, touch my godlessness’.
In truth, sometimes I came to dread reading the next prose poem, and this is a collection which will not suffer dipping. The sequence of poems is crucial here, and on the first reading at least, the poet’s ordering really must be followed. When I say ‘dreaded’, that should not imply that there is anything lucklustre about Erato. Quite the reverse. This is a harrowing, pitch-perfect exploration of the continuing echoes and mutations of grief. Poetry has no obligation to comfort, provide therapy or to saccharine-coat that or any other experience. Rees-Jones has moved personal mountains and pushed against any resistance to create a lyric intensity which is quite unlike anything else available. This is an extraordinary achievement. But whatever hope there is arrives late, and is uncertain in its kindnesses. Readers with parallel experiences would be wise to ensure that they themselves are in a secure place before reading this collection, such is its power. That warning understood, Erato seems already a classic.