White Sheets, a Poetry Book Society recommendation, is Beverley Bie Brahic‘s second collection. Born in Canada, she lives in France and the US and has translated a number of books by Cixous, Kristeva, and Derrida. A fascination with language’s mutability is evident throughout the collection, perhaps best seen in the wonderful translations of Francis Ponge’s prose poems. These use a playful, defamiliarising focus to examine language and objects with humour and a lightness of touch, as in the ‘The Cigarette’:
First let us render the atmosphere, both hazy and dry – dishevelled – in which the cigarette reclines, all the while creating it.
This is the prose poem form at its best: sharply phrased, lyrical through subtle rhyming sounds and echoes, and a sense of narrative. The scattered use of French words and place names, as well as Italian and North American locations, gives White Sheets a broad geographical range which is well matched by the variety of its themes.
One which runs throughout is a central speaker’s relationship with their parents. A story emerges: a father fighting in the Second World War misses the birth of his child. This has a lasting impact, creating both physical and emotional distance, and also problems with communication:
Neither of us has the gift of the gab.
We stare at our toes and come up
with oysters, crusted in barnacles.
(‘Jingle Pot Road’)
This relationship and the death of the father are often experienced through imagery from the natural world, including fish, fruit, birds. The speaker’s mother is an exacting, cold figure and, as the father retreats, she becomes the focus of several restrained yet sad poems, including ‘Poem in Which I Pack You a Few Things for the Hospital’, in which the speaker, feeling guilty in their mother’s house, says “I weep with the sound off as I was taught”.
This is not to suggest that the collection is predominately maudlin. Many poems are inquisitive and funny, and the mood is celebratory on the whole. Perhaps partly because of Brahic’s translation work, there’s a sense of joy in language, such as the richness of sound in the beautiful ‘Behind, Before…’: “weeds jimmying through the concrete/ where horses flicked flies from their flanks”. There are several ekphrastic poems, which again are a (loose) form of translation, working from the visual to the verbal. The figure of Eve appears on a number of occasions, both modern and mythic, with a sassy approach to sex. I feel Brahic faltered in her use of sexual imagery, relying on euphemistic metaphor, when one of her many strengths is the use of pared down, clear expression. An example is ‘Eve to her Daughters: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’ when Eve describes how she and Adam first had sex:
[we] rubbed our two sticks of kindling together –
whoosh! – first my brush-
then his pine-wood burst into flame.
And in ‘One Orange’:
A hand reaches out, reaches down.
Locates the spring where water starts.
These images don’t seem to be delivered with irony, and, if taken on face value, they could be a little toe-curling. Another poem which gives pause for thought is ‘The Down Syndrome Child’:
You, the grotesque in the double glaze.
You, that tuneless droning, monotonous
as wind in a warped door.
Speaking personally for a moment, this poem made me quite uncomfortable through its depiction of a vulnerable subject. Again, it was hard to discern any irony suggesting the poem was undermining a view from another source, and I was uncertain what point the poem was making.
These concerns aside, White Sheets is immensely readable, skilfully crafted and rich with ideas and feeling.
Katherine Stansfield is a lecturer at Aberystwyth University. Her reviews have appeared in New Welsh Review, Poetry Wales, and Planet. Her first poetry collection, Playing House, will be published by Seren in 2014, and her first novel will be published by Parthian in 2013.
White Sheets by Beverley Bie Brahic is published by CB Editions, 2012, £7.99.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)