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Adele Ward Reviews Yvonne Reddick and Russell Jones

Yvonne Reddick
Smith|Doorstop, £7.50

Dark Matters: new sci-fi poems
Russell Jones
Tapsalteerie, £5

At the centre of Yvonne Reddick’s beautifully produced chapbook Spikenard is a broken relationship, a sense of loss and a depth of feeling that endures years after the former lover has departed. Familiar enough territory perhaps, but the way Reddick approaches her theme is far from commonplace, surprising the reader on every page with novel scenarios and startling imagery which suggest state of mind rather than expressing thoughts and feelings overtly.

This is a far cry from the confessional approach, with technically skilful poems that demonstrate the innovation necessary for a woman writing love poetry about a man when the tradition of male gaze makes a reversal of roles so difficult.

The collection begins and ends with love poems, the first set at the height of passion and the final one set long after the relationship has ended. ‘Desire Path’, which opens Spikenard, uses the conceit of attempted communication between previously warring countries to show how new lovers explore each other, hopeful that union is possible:

Once, we thought we’d find a route around the borders
and feel the bounds dissolve, like sutures in a wound.
So my hands roved the path of your spine, and my lowland mouth
spoke your Highlander surname – tried it on like a ring.

The wish to dissolve national borders and merge European languages in the following stanzas suggests both physical and emotional closeness and resonates with an additional interpretation: the need to counteract the xenophobia of our current political narrative.

The title poem ‘Spikenard’ ends the chapbook with an imagined visit to the former partner’s home, evoking memories with the sense of smell:

I trailed your flint and bayleaf scent to the porch,
but someone else’s perfume was mixed with yours

Step by step the reader is drawn in by sensual details recalling perfect intimacy, until the final couplet shocks with its sudden jolt into current reality, where loss and betrayal have replaced the promise of love and comfort:

I pictured her hands at your belt, in that attic room –
my key still sprang the bolt.

Two of the most striking poems for me are ‘The Bait’, which uses quatrains and a pattern of repeat lines to build tension as an attempt at meeting somebody new almost ends in date rape; and ‘Firesetter’, which shows the narrator finding her ex-lover’s lighter under the bed and starting a small fire which escalates rapidly into a bushfire that rages for nearly two weeks, an outward representation of her state of mind.

Spikenard is a Laureate’s Choice, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy, and every poem is a striking and highly crafted take on the main themes, with a variety of styles including memoir, mythology, fairytale and nature poetry as well as translation. It would be impossible in a short review to cover the impressive range of this book.

Dark Matters by Russell Jones has the subtitle ‘new sci-fi poems’, and the collection shows the potential for genre writing in poetry. His work is both in keeping with the sci-fi genre and also defies strict categorisation at times, for example in the opening poem ‘Dark Horse’, which is closer to magic realism or mythological metamorphosis.

On a superficial level, the narrator turns from human to horse at night, joined by characters from other houses who want to run wild:

I live for darker days, drape a scarf over my shoulders,
walk into the empty, early morning, fold into shadows.
My fists and feet harden to hoofs, I brush my hair
into a mane, spine cracking into a saddleless back

This stanza also suggests the darkness of depression, while the neighbours joining in the night-time run give the impression of a more general malaise at the drudgery of daily life: “Everyone wakes with the wind in their blood,/ dresses for the day, our suits and minds unstabled.”

Set in the future, ‘Lazarus Tech’ takes us into a more familiar sci-fi scenario, with a “post-mammalian” world of reptiles following the extinction or transformation of our species. This environmental form of sci-fi continues in ‘Waggledancers’, a dystopian poem set in a world where bees have vanished, taking with them pollination and fruit. Only historic research makes it possible to attempt fruit growing again by sending robotic bees out into space:

So we placed our faith in technology,
trusted the data. We built solar wings, hives
of Nanoreplica Apis to seek and recover.

I’ve heard the idea of robotic bees discussed so it’s a dystopia not far removed from our present truth.

Chapbooks are necessarily concise but Dark Matters is also wide reaching in the topics covered, with sci-fi narratives employed to discuss diverse issues, from the personal to the political and environmental. ‘An Official Guide to Surviving the Invasion’ gives government style advice on alien attack but is full of the rhetoric we hear about immigration; ‘To His Coy Dalek’ is a love poem that spoofs Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ while also using non-human anatomy to suggest deeper love: “Darling, my two hearts beat because of you.”

There is humour here, but the chapbook ends with real anger at how we are destroying our world:

You travel alone, not stopping
when the lights turn
to amber. Hurry, or the storm
will steal you from the ground.
Beep the horn. It is the only way
to feel the blood in your fists,
to make a sound in a world of noise.

Adele Ward

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