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Blog Review 20: Bethany W Pope Reviews Stephanie Norgate’s ‘The Blue Den’

Stephanie Norgate’s collection, The Blue Den, is a thoughtful study of the people and things which inhabit the edges of the conventional society. The poems are so well constructed that the reader becomes enmeshed in narratives that demand continual attention, even when the verses take a turn towards the viscerally violent, which they do often.

In the poem ‘Anguius Fragilis’, about a glass snake’s relationship with a garden, this violence is implied by the mention the narrator makes about nearly slaughtering the slow worm’s harmless young:

those small flickerings,
Silver gold esses, Saxon smith work,
that I almost killed for baby vipers

The poet combines appropriate Saxon alliteration with imagery to convey to the reader the sense of something beautiful that is nearly irretrievably lost. More than that, the poet uses the implication of violence to lend value to a creature that so many overlook as just another facet of the garden.

‘Rabbit in Leamington’ combines brutality, (both literal and implied), close observation and the free play of association to explore the relationships between individual people and the larger world. The speaker, addressing the reader from the present, is reminded of another trip she took years ago when she catches sight of a rabbit from the window of a train. It reminds her of the creature she saw soon after she and her boyfriend were attacked by a drunken homeless person. The man “battered the phone box…” and the boyfriend immediately falls into the role of protector:

And my boyfriend put his arms around me
and blocked the opening door with his back.
And still the drunk kept hammering,

The speaker mentally merges the drunk man with the rabbit, possibly because he lived a wild outdoors life, but once she makes that association others follow and the roles of all the players shift:

Somehow the rabbit was the tramp
the tramp the rabbit, but the good boyfriend

was still the good boyfriend
holding the heavy door shut,
and I thought of him at home

in his garden, gently preparing a rabbit,
undoing its skin with a knife,
and turning it inside out.

Associating the drunk with a wild thing, a rabbit, transforms him to prey, and implies the shift in the speaker’s perception of the ‘good boyfriend’ from protector to predator.

The boyfriend’s action is transformed, the roles of victim and victimizer are implacably altered. The story stops being about the survival of a couple attacked by a madman, and becomes a question of how the man ran mad to begin with. The person preserving the mores of civilization is, after all, the one who has hold of the knife.

The poem which lends its title to this book, ‘The Blue Den’, is in many ways connected to the previous poem. It features a man who has chosen the edges, “This is him now. / A bunch of old doors for walls.”

He lives on the beach in a house made of old doors, with only one that still serves the purpose it was meant for, symbolizing the number of choices the man has left, “He can choose from several horizons./ The electricity lines. The sea.”

What those two choices really are, and which one he has chosen, becomes much clearer as the poem progresses. There are two things that the poem makes very clear: one is that the sea and the sky can look very similar, but they are not; the other is that there are two routes to death: one rambles, the other is quicker

The poem implies that the sea, the quick death, is not the one that he has chosen. The narrator says this of the man who found the blue paint he uses to camouflage his shelter the day ‘the girls’ abandoned him, “It’s harder to fade into the sky than into the sea, / however many blue coats he puts on.”

It is safe to say that the poems in this book will not fade quickly in your memory. This is Norgate’s second full collection; it is worth a deep read, a long contemplation.

Bethany W Pope
Bethany W Pope’s first poetry collection, A Radiance was published by Cultured Llama Press in June. Her second collection, Persephone in the Underworld has been accepted by Rufus Books and will be released in 2016.

The Blue Den by Stephanie Norgate is published by Bloodaxe Books (£8.95)

(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. Does anybody write poems that don’t require long explanations? At poetry events the preambles can be longer than the poems themselves and give the impression that the poet’s motivation is selfish and inward-looking – though I’m certain that is never ever ever ever the case. That said, somebody turned to me at an event the other night and asked “how does it work out that somebody thinks this stuff is worth paying money for?”

    I couldn’t answer that but clearly it happens and in case we thickos haven’t been preambled and sometimes even postambled other people write about the poems to apparently unlock their meanings for us. Glad to hear a poet has a boyfriend though. Hope for us all there.

  2. I know what you mean about explanations at live vents, Joanna. But what we have here isn’t an ‘explanation’. This is a review. It’s part of the critical discourse surrounding poetry, literature, film, painting – all the arts.

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