Jane Bonnyman’s first pamphlet, An Ember from the Fire: Poems on the Life of Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, is a gothic wonder of a book, an adventurous, swashbuckling exploration of an extraordinary life. The pamphlet opens as the heroine travels from Indianapolis to California (her daughter in tow) to meet up with her first husband who is hoping to cash in on the gold rush. It covers Fanny’s scandalous divorce, her meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson, his death, and her quiet retirement in her own small Eden. The life expounded here is startling and vivid (it is difficult for me to believe that no one has written a collection about this subject this before) and luckily the writing lives up to the challenge, sheathing those good bones in appropriate flesh.
The first poem, ‘Dawn’ traces Fanny’s journey across America in pursuit of her treasure-hunting husband. A taut, precise poem, it perfectly encapsulates the triumph of hope (in the guise of will) over the conventional stagnation of death. It begins with a description of seemingly-inescapable desolation:
Among stagnant pools
where dead fish float
and coconut leaves drift
over rotting flesh
like helpless souls,
and feverish women lie
curled in hammocks
chattering to revenants
of their lost men
Across this landscape, Fanny strides armoured with her purpose. She wills her way through the land of death, like a heroine from one of her future-husband’s books:
she buys liquor, hot coffee
for her daughter,
finds a guide, three mules
and a road that leads
beyond the cemetery
to Panama City
‘Dawn’ is structured in two evenly-divided parts; there are nine lines for death, and nine for forced rebirth. Not a word is wasted. The effect of reading this poem is very much like inhaling the first breathless fifty pages of an adventure novel, when the story first starts to get really good.
‘Newly Wed’ takes place fifteen years after ‘Dawn’ when Fanny has finally been able to obtain her freedom from her philandering first husband, just in time to marry Robert Louis Stevenson, who has fallen desperately ill and is very close to death. The poem is prefaced with an excerpt from a biography of her life, “…she took this step in the almost certain conviction that in a few months at least she would be a widow.”
The tender details are startling here; Bonnyman imbues the borrowed-consciousness of her heroine with believable psychological depth:
For dinner – wine
and peaches she kept
in the mouth of a tunnel
she sheltered in from the sun.
Wheels of light spun across her eyes
as she steered into the echoing dark,
never sure if she should go on,
if the old timber shaft
would hold her for long.
After the fire of grief, from those fertile, dead ashes, rises lasting peace. ‘Santa Barbara’ is the portrait of a woman alone, surrounded by green, content if never happy. After the death of her husband, Fanny lives through her senses:
She notes the vermillion of the hibiscus
almost luminous in the blue shadow
of the hollyhock she planted last spring.
Everywhere the scent of lemon, loquats,
geranium, Norwegian pine.
The final poem is quiet, vivid, it brings the collection to an appropriate close.
It is important to state that although there is a well-researched, thoroughly-developed ‘Notes’ section which provides background biographical context to the poems which it follows, the pamphlet holds together very well on its own and can be read without it. It is a testament to Bonnyman’s skill that she is able to form a coherent, stand-alone narrative out of so few, taut lines.
Maria Isakova Bennett’s Caveat is a meditation on the unreliability of romantic love. Her poetry is polished, deliberately cool, and glacially smooth, constructing a surface clear enough to reveal insight, without inviting intimacy.
‘Keep Falling’ is a poem about a love affair with snow. Bennett has the ability to sexualize the inanimate even while her human lovers are reduced to rather sculptural objects. In this poem, nature becomes a lover; it seduces and is seduced:
You swirl, slowly tumble,
load branches, blanket fields and fells. Drift,
wrap me in you while I throw back my head
to taste you on my tongue.
Natural cycles infuse every relationship in this pamphlet. In ‘Blue Moon’ an inconstant lover arrives at seasonal intervals which are as rare (and predictable) as the twice-monthly full-moon:
The last time I heard from him,
the sky was veined like marble,
an August moon making day of night.
This is a lover who arrives to be enjoyed and can be depended on to disappear again at regular intervals. The speaker’s daughter is old enough to note the pattern, but she lacks the experience to know that while human behaviour is mutable, an individual’s nature is not:
You should be used to his disappearing acts,
my daughter told me. But they are not acts,
I wanted to say. They are real.
Expanding on this theme, ‘Caveat’ reveals the specific traits which makes this mutability so sexually appealing. While ‘Blue Moon’ focused on the externals, how such love appears from the outside, this poem pans closer to the actual experience:
But he was a changeable man:
one night lulling me to sleep with tunes he picked
on a rosewood flute, notes wavering over
deserted bridle paths; the next reeling me in
with bed-time stories – he was the hero
of every yarn he span; and the next
Connell was stone-cold, silent –
The poems in this pamphlet have been carefully honed, delicately edited with an eye for the overall effect. The style is cool, possibly too chill for some palates, but the central theme is thoroughly explored.
Warsan Shire’s Her Blue Body focuses tightly on three themes; mortality, sex, and culture. It is at its most interesting exploring the places where those threats meet.
In ‘Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle’ the speaker addresses an uncle who has attempted to excise himself entirely from his own culture. In doing so he has been embraced (in the physical sense) by the society he emulates, but he has never been absorbed. It is difficult for a poet to capture this very-specific variety of loneliness, but Shire has managed it here:
Love is not haram, but after years of fucking
women who cannot pronounce your name,
you find yourself in the foreign food aisle,
beside the turmeric and the saffron of mothers’ hands,
pressing your face into the ground, praying
in a language you haven’t used in years.
When a person cuts themselves off from their roots they grow hungry and starved. During such times, the thinnest echo of home can be enough to set them reeling.
In ‘St Thomas’ Hospital’ a brush with death becomes a meditation on the nature of friendship and fear. The speaker is presented with a potentially nightmarish truth and she must learn to face it. Thankfully, should the worst happen, she will not meet her death alone:
The doctor points to a small dark spot.
We found blood in your brain
right here. I think of Yosra’s hand in mine
walking out of this life together,
like two friends should.
Culture, mortality, now; sex. This pamphlet has a complicated relationship with sex. There are a great many poems about sexual abuse, rape, and cultural reactions to rape – all of which are important areas to explore – but the most interesting poems for me were the ones which risked a more positive attitude towards the subject. ‘Little Wolf Little Wound’ treated questions of sexual appetite and the mindset which views the wilful relinquishing of virginity as a variety of loss:
pink sugar paper hymen
purple jellyfish hymen
brown brown blood
warm warm oven
dark red ribbons in my hair
These are childish images, food images, the repetition graces even the blood with innocence, as in a nursery rhyme. It is appropriate, then, that like so many nursery rhymes this one ends with the image of eating:
you pull in and out of me
until I’m plump with love
round enough to eat
Rosie Miles’ Cuts opens a slit in the fabric of the world to reveal a fragment of the red, seeping reality which seethes underneath its clean mask. This pamphlet shunts across time and style, from the ancient to the modern, from the seemingly-simple to the satisfyingly baroque. If a poetic voice is the result of saying exactly what you want to, without fear of convention, then Miles’ is fully developed and deviously strong.
In what is probably the most effective poem in the pamphlet, ‘Wragg’ centres around a poor woman who is used in love, abused by her employer, and who winds up a recipient of the unliveable mercy offered to Victorian women who found themselves ‘in trouble’:
So I ate the slop they said was food, slept
on the boards that passed for beds. I hardly grew
and the baby never kicked. Not once. Until
she slid out from between my legs like a dead thing.
After sloughing off the dubious charity of the workhouse, the speaker looks down into her daughter’s eyes and sees a future that is a reflection of her own brutalized past, so she cuts it off. Wragg is, of course, caught and tried, paraded in front of ‘virtuous’ men (who could never be her peers) and sentenced to death:
She says Mr Arnold pities me. There can be
no songs of triumph while there’s still my kind.
Nothing left of me now but my name:
Wragg. Sally Wragg. Silly Wragg. Stupid fucking
cunt of a Wragg. Tomorrow at eight
I’ll stand on that trap and think of England
and I defy you to look me in the eye
you English men. Look me in the eye.
As ever, Miles’ rhythmic wordplay is cutting and apt. Then, as now, ‘England’ wore a different mask, depending on your context and class. To ‘think of England’ was (and remains) a term for stiffening your lip and enduring something unpleasant — the sexual connotation (stemming from a time when rape was legitimized by the contexts of servitude or marriage) is intentional. This speaker has been abused all her life. She has a right to her rage, and her terrible mercies.
Following a totally different vein, ‘Match’ deals in an odd, humorous duality. In this poem the speaker would like to sort (her?) life out. S/he’d like to scrape it up to a conventional standard, but life (being animal) is having none of it:
That’s really rude, I said to my life. I want
to help. We could always go into joint therapy.
I’m open to that. My life just farted
and squatted down in the corner of my study.
Life, the force which keeps every body in motion, isn’t clean and won’t suffer pretensions. Life knows what it wants (more life) and it doesn’t particularly care about your other, seemingly more lofty goals.
Miles’ has a knack for revealing the beauty in ugly things. She points out that the things which we distain most frequently are beautiful because they are unapologetically themselves. A corpse is a corpse is a corpse. A piece of litter will not take a shining. ‘When I Am Dead, My Dearest’, the final poem in the pamphlet, perfectly embodies this philosophy. This is a self-written eulogy which celebrates facets of a life that a less honest writer would sooner bury:
remember I lived under the Austin Expressway
in a room of concrete girders and crisp boxes
held together with twine. Tell the cars
how I foraged and fumbled for a life worth living
among the abandoned mattresses and drunken trolleys.
Miles’ poetry is funny, sad, and occasionally sweepingly profound. It is more honest than ‘quirky’ — a term which has already been applied to it in an attempt to undermine the strength of the work. It isn’t an ‘easy’ book, but then nothing good comes easily at first, and this, being good, is no exception to that rule.
Bethany W. Pope
Bethany W Pope has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012) Crown of Thorns,(Oneiros Books, 2013), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014), and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing, 2014). The Rag and Boneyard will be published soon by Indigo Dreams. Her chapbook Among The White Roots will be released by Three Drops Press next autumn. Her first novel, Masque, will be published by Seren in 2016.
An Ember from the Fire: Poems on the Life of Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson by Jane Bonnyman is published by Poetry Salzburg, £4.50.
Caveat by Maria Isakova Bennett is published by Poetry Bus, €8.50.
Her Blue Body by Warsan Shire is published by Flipped Eye, price unknown.
Cuts by Rosie Miles is published by HappenStance Press , £5.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)