There’s often a certain cynicism, which I share, regarding poems about poetry and poets. The American journal PANK once tweeted, viciously, “Whenever someone submits me a story in which the protagonist is a writer, I think ‘Why does this author hate me?’” Reading and considering Angela Leighton’s The Messages, I kept coming back to that barb and others like it, because of how consistently, effectively and beautifully Leighton’s work explodes the idea that writing about writing – or, more broadly, about communication – is necessarily parochial or shallow.
In Leighton’s world, every object and place is singing to the poet. There is the Scallop which “In words the sky looks through, this thing / assigns the wind its carved tune”, or the Chanterelle whose name and presence is “a top-string A pitched in thin air”, or the Ammonite which is “an ear to a star” – while in Crack-Willow the deepest sadness of the old trees are that “These broken shapes have lost their power to speak”.
Leighton’s messengers are sometimes artworks, as in a pair of ekphrastic pieces after Barbara Hepworth sculptures, but more often are part of the natural (or non-human) world. Leighton’s evident joy in receiving messages from rocks and hollyhocks – the celebratory descriptions, the rich patterns of sound – gives the collection an almost pantheistic bent.
Yet the poems are not always about these sparks of ecological empathy – equally often, as in Crack-Willow, they consider communication that is partial, mysterious, or wholly failed. In Wolf Note, for example, Leighton considers the jarring resonance of a stringed instrument, when “a forest howls / in the carved soundboard’s wooden memory” and runs “amok in your rules, / and out from true”. The collection’s most wrenching moment for me also came in such a poem, Kite in 4:4 Time, when the toy’s ecstatic, flowing flight is cut short by a tree and its owner “tries to dial / a love that’s dead and can’t reply”.
Leighton frequently makes these vertiginous leaps of metaphor, and these surprises keep the collection from settling into too easy a descriptive nature poetry – so just as in a paean to kite-flying we can find a jolt of heartbreak, so too can a garden Sprinkler become a priest (Aspeges me), or an industrial wasteland hide a true Wilderness. It often seems that Leighton’s messages consist of precisely this kind of moment – when an object or place is carried over, transformed through a well-timed volta into something entirely other – as though all communication between poet and world (or object and poem) occurs in unexpected connections and consonances.
Through discussing the collection’s strengths, I’ve begun to outline its inverse weaknesses. A few times too often a simple, delicate piece of descriptive poetry is asked to carry extra thematic weight: the collection’s title bears down on poems like Out, where a study of the night sky is forced to become a question about “how far / the silence lends an ear and answers / no-one, listening”, or like Gecko when the description of the lizard as “A sudden comma” feels like a grudging, unnecessary nod to messaging. These over-reachings make me glad of those less obviously-themed poems which allow the extended metaphor time to settle – while in a weaker collection they might seem like padding, here they are a breath.
Similarly, though those struggling, explorative messages are delightful, others just clunk. I found the truisms of A Mother Speaks rather cloying (“Self’s a finding”, “Earth will accept you”), while Obsidian‘s description of a rock in which we are “recast in a glass darkly” seems dully inevitable, given the context of the collection. In even these poems, however, there is still pleasure in Leighton’s confident style: every poem is well-made, with intricate internal rhymes, clever assonances, carefully-deployed forms. Perhaps it is their well-madeness which has allowed the occasional fizzle of a thought to slip through.
I was delighted to have so much in this collection to delight in – surprise came more often through a neatly-placed reveal or a shock of language than through an extended puzzle. The collection has thematic immediacy and transparency – but it’s the gorgeous, rich transparency of a blue hole. Murkier poems are frustrating when, once you’ve peered through the gloom, they turn out to be no more than a puddle; in Leighton’s poems you can often see all the way to the bottom, and the clarity allows you to understand just how much there is to see and enjoy there. Reading the collection, you can’t help but share in Leighton’s world, and continue to find new messages in the world she’s rewritten for you.
The Messages by Angela Leighton is published by Shoestring Books, £9.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)