This collection is a cabinet of curiosities, teeming with haunting visions which return the words ‘marvellous’ and ‘wonderful’ to their real meanings. Angela’s poems occupy a mysterious hinterland of everyday life. She often lulls us into a sense of security by her detailed and vivid observation of nature, and then a door swings open into the strange and unknown, into a world of seductive fantasy and unexpected humour.
I was drawn in and captured by these poems like the mariners in her mythic ‘Sea Hare’: “the sea-hare slips from water forms… she rides the storms on ribbons of kelp… to guide lost sailors home to her green-lit halls”. Angela has a gothic imagination, a ghoulish tenderness — she weaves spells of hares and witches. In ‘The Real Bedtime Story’ she tells us, “I’m the thing under your bed”, “the bloody smear on crystal slippers”, “the itch / that sends the wolf to speak in tongues”. In ‘Preparations for a Working Day’, she solemnly instructs, “select a round stone to keep/ in your mouth”, concluding “Above all,/ inspect your hat-feathers with care;/ if any have splits/ or dusty edges/ they will not light/ your way back.”
Her enticing and provocative titles give a flavour — (and are a found poem waiting to be worked): ‘Sea Hare’, ‘Rejecting Gravity,’ The Mortician Speaks of Hands’, ‘A Fallow Blooming’, ‘Learning To Play The Violin By Holding a Bow’, ‘A Country Road Becomes a Prayer’, Diamonds and Toads’, ‘The Hangman Speaks of Art’, ‘Gravedigger’s Bane’, ‘Mothering the Unmade’, ‘Mrs Houdini Sorts Through His Last Effects’, ‘The Shapeshifter’s Wife’, ‘ ‘Our Restless Dead’, ‘A Pederast Speaks of Home’, ‘The God of Lost Letters’, ‘Victor Knows the Danger of Words’, ‘ The Colour of Shame’, ‘The Memory Keeper’. These tantalising titles hold promises which the poems never disappoint. ‘The Mortician Speaks of Hands’ demonstrates her breadth of imagination, her humanity, and a penetrating clarity of vision in its surprising end. ‘Rejecting Gravity’ is a wild fantasy about flight, with a twist in the tail which made me laugh out loud.
The poems are lovingly peopled with the odd, the misplaced, the obsessive, the misfits, the wordless, a butcher “with the thud of cleavers in his laugh”. One woman gently removes her skin in front of a mirror, another hatches an egg between her breasts (is it dragon, bird, flying fish?), another vividly and filmically becomes a tree as “tendrils of creamy roots/ twist between toes”; another covers herself with sugar-water to encourage bees to swarm over her chest, neck and face, “every/ tiny foot telegraphing obeisance”.
Angela has the gift of the true nature poet to slow us down and show the world afresh, “straight as the fox’s/ bloody thought”. In ‘Call and Return’ “Pigeons clapper into an expanding sky”, a violet is “hunkered in a bony fold of root”, and “messy squabbles of starlings/ cloud from branches, flies weave and bob/ above slow cows and I am ready. I am ready”. The close observation of ‘Wild Strawberries and Blind Snakes’ leads us quietly to a metaphor which strikes like the snake itself. ‘The Rhubarb Patch’ captures the “tart shock” of adolescence as much as rhubarb itself. ‘Beeing’, which opens with the unnervingly apt plural, “When I was bees”, is perhaps an elegy for youth, a time when we “lived for the drunken plunge/ into flower hearts /gold dusted bumbled back /carried the world in our bent elbows”.
These are poems rich as fruit cake, dense with delicious images: “Sunday simmers for hours in the kitchen”, “houses bloom on a bend”, “years weight heavy on the roof/ curving the spine”, “the garden leans on the walls”, “the shoppers and registers/ tingle like a rash, a tinnitus”.
And there’s an undercurrent beneath the surreal and the grotesque, which surfaces most clearly in ‘The Message’, a poem for two 6,000 year-old skeletons, locked in an embrace, ”there is only one word./ I see it in the L bend of elbows, the roundness of skull,/ the v where your thighs touch”.
She chooses, fittingly, to end the collection with a poem called ‘first things’, about the possibilities of imagination in a prosaic world. Read these poems for their juxtaposition of the strange with the everyday, for rich and vivid language, for an other-worldly mythology and resonant insight.
Maggie Butt is an ex-journalist and BBC TV documentary film maker turned poet. Her poems have been widely published in magazines and escaped the page onto Radio 4, readings, e-zines, festivals and schools. She was the judge of Ver Poets competition 2008. Her day job is Head of the Media department at Middlesex University where she has been teaching Creative Writing since 1990. Her poetry pamphlet Quintana Roo was published by Acumen in 2003 and her collection Lipstick was published in March 2007 by Greenwich Exchange. It was chosen as the Poetrykit book of the month December 2007/ January 2008.