(Picador, 2020); pbk £10.99
The quietness in rooms suspends
like throngs of weightless polystyrene balls,
closely but not densely packed[.]
If you want to discover what lies behind the mysterious title of Colette Bryce’s eighth collection, it is unlikely that the cover will tell you. Nor will the opening poems, which lead up to the book’s searing long poem heartland. However, when you reach that section you will want to retrace to collect the clues, which were not always obvious, but invariably were present. That seems entirely true to the pattern of how we react, how we grieve and how we try to unpick reasons when we attempt to comprehend the sudden death of someone close. The loss of the never-named ‘M’ is on every page.Whilst there is no dedication, a dedication is embedded nonetheless.
The M Pages opens with ‘Death of an Actress’, a poem layered with literary references, and heavy with a clever litany of clichés, both witty and poignant. That wit is intrinsic to these poems. Throughout tragic, shocking and sombre passages, Bryce’s fun with wordplay, and her tumbling rhyme never diminish, akin to the irreverent gallows humour which needfully so often accompanies mourning.
If Shakespeare, Bishop, MacNeice, Plath and more keep threading through the lines, Pink Floyd and The Clash are also around, but Philip Larkin’s ‘Ambulances’ is a particular undercurrent. Throughout there are marvellous depictions of forms of transport; in ‘Cuba’ there’s ‘each classic carapace’, elsewhere hearses are ‘ beetle-backed’ (‘A London Leaving’), and ‘open-arsed’. As Larkin hit upon the underlying dread of passing ambulances, undoubtedly Bryce finds a parallel in hearses.
As if to answer the question on her own idiolect, she clarifies in ‘My Criterion’:
That exiled Northern Irish quality is shot through all her work, and ‘A London Leaving’ is as Derry Catholic a funeral as could be found. In London, the deep-held resonances are powerful, and in all the ritual, Church to wake:
The fear of god is not
the fear of god but fear
of fungi, rot.
Bones, teeth, dust, ashes, insects, fungal decay: all repeating motifs. Ancient Celtic ways surface, just as the ‘two fingers, stop’ draws a recognisable image. There is horror too and subliminal fear, when an act of car vandalism leaves ‘a black triangle’ (‘Drum’) with all its historical connotations.
The central elegiac poem, ‘The M pages’ is in fourteen parts, and although only one of those sections is in itself a sonnet, the form’s grace underpins. I would be disrespectful to the collection to reveal too much here. The poem opens uncompromisingly on:
M has disappeared and that’s final.
That’s final. The ultimate words
in a reprimand when we were small.
Rather as Christopher Reid’s dying wife urged the poet not to spare the more harrowing details of her illness’ progression, but to write for completeness, Bryce has written unflinchingly of a dreadful passing, and there is a forensic aspect to her narrative. She paints herself, via Mantel, as ‘a cynical sidekick’ in places. Yet, in its lacerating honesty, her lines are no less loving. Sometimes, she returns herself to the picture, significantly, not only to elucidate, but to censor herself:
Don’t let’s talk about the underworld and all that crap.
Death’s silencing of the living in our culture is felt, railed against:
Say it: dead. In perpetuity.
Continually. incessantly, repeatedly dead.
The pile-up of manipulated clichés at the collection’s opening returns with a vengeance.
Only one of the sequence is given a title, (‘12. A Digital Photograph of Your Grave’) reflecting the intrusive social media ‘celebration’ of the deceased’s birthday.
your name will unfix like a limpet from its scar
and birl away[…]
The closing poems, unpicking family histories and moving into a changed ‘normal’ which cannot be normal continue to tell of the personal, but also they underscore the most universal, and unavoidable of our lived experiences.