Making the Familiar Strange: Claire Trévien

It’s a rare joy to stumble across a poem by a new poet that’s so good you order their book straightaway. In this case the poem was “Whales” by Claire Trévien on Josephine Corcoran’s excellent blog And Other Poems. A few days later my copy of Trévien’s The Shipwrecked House arrived. It didn’t disappoint.

There’s something about these poems that’s refreshing and unsettling at the same time. Even on a first read-through you come away feeling that the boundary between real and imagined has blurred a little (and by the third or fourth visit it’s thrillingly permeable).

Here’s the opening of “Mélusine”:

Sure, she looks human, but below
she is a snake wrapped around a cello.
The skin that cups her eyes is artificially scaled

with silver powder – in her hand she holds a crop to scald
the beast of wood and string.

This is beautiful writing: image, tone, sound-play and rhythm all firing at once. The rhymes slip just to the side of resolution (in the first case with a full rhyme on an unstressed syllable and in the second with the mismatch of long and short a sounds in what are otherwise identical words – none of which intrudes on your conscious reading of the lines). And if the strangeness of the mélusine (a mythological water spirit) isn’t enough, there’s the arresting incongruity of the cello. Then the poem reverses and the mélusine becomes figurative and the cello concrete.

Many of the poems engage with form in a particularly intelligent way. “Journeys of Evaporation” begins as a pantoum then progressively removes words and letters to reveal three successive layers/poems within the original. This sounds tricksy but the experience of reading it is anything but. The pantoum is coherent and unforced (a difficult trick in itself) and each of the evaporated poems adds as much in meaning as it takes away in letters.

It would be pointless to try to précis the “plot” of many of these poems. It quickly becomes akin to trying to find the bottom of an Escher staircase: each element makes literal sense in itself, but when you look at the whole there’s a faint impossibility to it all.

Trévien writes with a refreshing humour. In some poems (“Bread Cthulhu”; “Introduction to My Love”) she can be laugh-out-loud funny, but more often it’s there in a turn of phrase (“The weather’s gained weight”; “You bildungsroman through books”) or straight-faced impossibility (“the carpet looked too smooth to hide a mammal”). Her surrealist touches are more poignant than ridiculous (“An anchor on every roundabout / weighed down by corroding flowers”).

The sea is a recurring presence: many poems are set at sea or on the coast, and in others the sea invades the land (“Rotting Anchors”) or sea-myths invade our perception (as in “Mélusine” above). The house of the title poem is “shipwrecked”; whales swim under the carpet; the changeable sea is a perfect symbol for what Trévien is doing in these poems.

I really enjoyed this book. Trévien’s is a beguilingly original voice and this is an assured first collection, startling and strangely beautiful (and perfect for an impulse holiday read).

The Shipwrecked House, Claire Trévien, Penned in the Margins, 2013