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Blog Review 27 – Jennifer Wong Reviews Angela Kirby’s ‘A Scent of Winter’

Following her previous collection Dirty Work, Angela Kirby’s latest book of poems, A Scent of Winter, is a substantial and delightful read that combines craft, humour and intelligence. Readers can readily find a handful of poems such as ‘Green Wine’ and ‘Gone Missing’ that show what Kirby has always been good at: an intelligent manipulation of form and narrative, her skill in anticipating the reader when creating suspense, and the ambition to make language new yet highly accessible.

Evocative and lyrical, this book of poems explores the under-layers of human emotions and desires, delving into the elusive or contradictory. Some of her work such as ‘Convallaria’ possesses a Larkinesque resonance, fusing candid imagery with poignancy in natural language, as the speaker suppresses, in vain, her feelings of desolation towards the loss of a loved one, an absence felt through the tender act of planting lilies-of-the-valley in the garden.

Don Paterson has remarked on Kirby’s ‘elegant balance …struck between form and image’. This can be seen in ‘Brindle Revisited’, in which a family house fallen into ruins is presented with convincing details that recall a mysterious past:

Slate shelves hold neither cakes nor cream
and now where eight of us once played
no one spurs Jack, the rocking horse,
across the silent nursery.

‘Karaoke Night at the Bull’, in particular, highlights Kirby’s strength in creating authentic voices and atmosphere. Having set up a jovial pub night scene of bantering and flirtation through fast-paced movements, dialogues and monosyllabic rhythm, Kirby pans across to the hidden ‘I’, who fancies Robbie by the door. Then, the reader is told of Charlene’s affection for Robbie’s friend, before the poem culminates in suppressed excitement and the sentimental lyrics of a karaoke song:

…while I’ve my eye
on Robbie by the door. His friend is weird
but Charlene fancies him, she likes them shy –
some tart is belting out the fact that she
will always love you—oo—oo. Oh God, it’s me.

Apart from being a poet, Kirby’s experiences as a chef, garden designer, freelance journalist and author, have likely influenced the language and themes of her work, giving her the ability to render emotional complexity. ‘Cambio de Tercio’, for example, adopts a sophisticated approach towards poetic narrative. Focusing on the female protagonist who reminisces on her recent trip to France, the poem brings to life the intimacy and excitement of a couple travelling together and enjoying each other’s company. Only in the last two lines the reader is shown that the protagonist is an unreliable narrator concealing an illicit affair:

…In London it rains, the underground’s
on strike; she kisses her husband and the whining
children, tells them the conference was boring,
that she’d been cold and lonely in Llandudno.

In ‘The Frig Pig’, a poem featured in Magma 53, Kirby’s language is filled with energy and playfulness, as she reworks obsolete slang, especially those from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue originally by Francis Grose:

Away with you, you bran-
faced brim, says he
and pikes off, the broad-
bound badge-cove,
glim in hanf, marvellous eager
to yam on quacking-cheats
at some Mumpers Hall…

At the core of her inventiveness lies a well-balanced resonance and humour. Similarly, in ‘Charmeuse’, the protagonist’s fascination or obsession with silk clothes sets up a comical beginning and draws the reader into his dark sexual fantasies before unravelling the possibility that this obsession might well be a very scientific, clinical study or recovery process. In ‘Countdown’, one sees her humorous approach in dramatising mysticism and the belief in miracles: “…the rest of us / should be careful / and wear dark glasses / for the unknowing cloud / is now edged with gold”.

Some of the poems are too predictable in form and sound. For example, ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ explores the morbid obsessions in nymphs and maidens in Victoria art, but the poem is rather linear and explicit; similarly, ‘That Day’, which recalls the beginning of an unexpected affection towards the flatmate’s brother, is told in a formulaic tone. All things considered, however, this collection marks Kirby’s confidence in her expressive poetic style, her attentiveness to language and music. Her poems are a pleasure to read on the page and also aloud, with a consistent, carefully wrought balance between poetic form and sound.

Jennifer Wong

‘A Scent of Winter’ is published by Shoestring Press, 2013.

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

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