Angela Cleland’s second collection shows up that ever-present, subtle gap between the way a book is marketed and the different pleasure it yields. The publisher’s blurb for Room of Thieves flags up the poetry’s quirkiness: ‘a six toed cat skeleton, a lesson in boxing technique and a poem in the shape of a phallus’. But the poems that draw most attention to themselves in this book are the poems least worthy of attention. ‘Jab’, the instructive opening of Cleland’s boxing sequence, is a piece where the scaffolding intrudes on the execution. As for the phallus poem, the less said about its concretism the better, but form does little for content. The strength of Cleland’s supple, deft writing lies in more understated poems, moments when she acknowledges the ambiguity of her enterprise: how – to follow the boxing metaphors that run through the collection – with every hit “your blow could absorb like melt water/ into the padding of your opponent’s gloves.” (from ‘Cross’).
In ‘Brinacory’, a wistful excavation of a place that is ‘pure island’, Cleland describes the “glamorous/ shadow” of a crag. This is a book full of glamorous shadows, the poems dense with powerfully reimagined histories, conveyed with a subtle and precise wit. Cleland is a shrewd observer of threat, from the “panic-plated” train carriage of ‘Abduction’ to the disassembled and reassembled neighbourhood of ‘The Suburbs’ (“how could I never have realised / we owned so many ticking things?”). Cleland mines the imaginative possibilities of every subject, whether she’s describing routes to immortality or a glimpse of two young bucks.
Her imagery is exact but expansive: after the death of a relative in ‘Emma’s Porch’, the narrator thinks of “each of the objects that hangs orphaned in his shed”. She’s also alive to the humanness of every landscape and to how the lack of human presence is felt. Writing in the voice of a dog in ‘ Elasaid’, she describes an absence through its senses and familiar haunts:
In the hills above the loch, you were everywhere:
at our fishing spot the tree kept your scent,
the rock held the warmth of your flesh;
your swears and whistles, at first as close
as the breeze, grew lost in the long grass…
The narrative of ‘Elasaid’ is compelling; a sinister, gruesome section which we assume is the end gives way to a more ghostly finale (“I exist so close to death I am death/ and can feel when one of your blood draws near”). For me, it’s the strongest poem in the book. Everything is said starkly: simply enough but never too simply. When the dog asks her master to forgive her for accepting the “hot advances” of a wolf, she says:
…for the short spell
we were locked together I forgot you. Forgive me,
for afterwards, I remembered you.
There’s something very moving in those direct words. The poems in ‘Room of Thieves’ that explore (and depart from) familiar landscapes are always thoughtful and deft – ‘Trackside Semi’ describes how a house seen from a train seems to wear the hopes of its occupants “like a buttonhole”. Places are marked by the people who live in them and they mark those human lives in turn. In ‘waiting for connection’ she brilliantly evokes a city hemmed in by want (“I need connection. I need stuff/ and I need it delivered by 9am”). The impossibility of true connection stalks some of the Cleland’s poems. In another boxing poem, ‘Sparring’, the narrator concludes:
So many of the blows we take to the face
must be intended only for the air.
Some of the best poems in the book are affecting in this slant kind of way, seeming to aim for the air but hitting us square between the eyes.
Helen Mort’s first collection, Division Street, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.
Room of Thieves by Angela Cleland is published by Salt, 2013, £12.99 hardback
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)