I’ve long been convinced that Deryn Rees-Jones is one of the most original and skilled poets writing today. By chance I settled down with her latest collection, Burying the Wren, in the same week I picked up Fiona Moore‘s The Only Reason for Time (on the strength of John Field’s review on the excellent Poor Rude Lines). Both books are in part responses to the premature death of a partner, and although it would be grossly reductive to say that they are therefore “about” bereavement, it’s nonetheless interesting to look at them side by side.
Individual poems can convey loss with heart-breaking clarity, but a collection can also catch the way grief unfolds over time. Both poets do this with exceptional skill, interweaving poems that directly address loss with others that do so either obliquely or not at all. Life goes on, however painfully and however changed.
I loved both of these books in different ways. For me there is something mythic lurking just below the surface in Rees-Jones’s work. Here there are poems about truffles and slugs, but the slugs come together for “midnight séances” and the truffles embody a kind of underworld magic evoking Circe and the “subterranean gods” of sexuality.
In the brilliant and disturbing “Dogwoman” sequence, Rees-Jones lets these underground forces loose on the surface. Responding to Paula Rego’s sequence of dog woman paintings, the poems express the transformational power of loss. Boundaries, syntax and narrative all break down. As the opening line has it, “No one can love this horror, no one can want it.” Language warps to an incantation, a piling-up of unnerving fragments (“Dog sitting, dog listening, dog running with big joy…Dog blur / hellhound”) punctuated by moments of almost unbearable poignancy (“Once, attendant in my blue dress, I hadn’t the words to call you back”).
Another sequence is presented as the work of Elisabeth So, a fictitious poet-persona who functions like Geoffrey Hill’s Sebastian Arrurruz or Patrick McGuinness’s Liviu Campanu. When this kind of creative pretending (prosopopoeia) succeeds, it can free a poet to write in new and surprising ways. Here it succeeds exceptionally well. Like the apocryphal woman who said that Hamlet was “full of quotations”, I found myself thinking this sequence was constructed almost entirely from memorable lines (“My mouth is yours – if only you’d answer, / to prove the darkness and the silence wrong”).
The poems that most explicitly deal with bereavement have a powerful simplicity to them (“your lips were cold, your eyelid stitched”) and the book ends with an uncompromising clarity: “where a wren sings, flirty in the alder, / in the long hot days of May, // when you are three years gone.”
Fiona Moore makes this passing of time her explicit subject. The book begins “Three days, and already I could write / a dissertation on the fastenings of gates”, which prompts the question: three days since what? We’re in medias res but the details are left unclear. A lot of the power of these poems comes from the way they avoid saying things directly: they point themselves just to the side of or just behind something momentous, in the wake not the wave. “The Shirt” memorably avoids spelling things out with the painfully ambiguous “and from then on, / nothing happened that we would forget.”
The title poem riffs on a quotation from Einstein: “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once”. In a beautifully-judged piece of dramatic logic, the poem begins by asserting “I will recover you from time that is not / linear, as it seemed” but fails before the inevitability of “time, our sealant”. In between comes the image of “the Aran jersey of our first kiss, folded / to two dimensions, collapsing time / from its fourth”.
One of the many paradoxes in the book is that time’s flow and passing can only be expressed in stillness, in a stop-frame succession of moments and memories. Three poems addressed “To the Moon” at different points in the year create a sense of time hurtling glacially past. “The Distal Point” could stand as a metaphor for the entire book, at the same time a modern take on Heraclitus (“no-one has stood here before…No-one will stand here again”) and an image of two people alone on shifting ground in a restless sea.
Reading Rees-Jones I’m unable to shrug off the lurking threat of Monsters From The Id. We join her in contemplating a trilobite or Chinese lanterns, but part of us is always alert for the shock of a Morlock’s claw grabbing us by the ankle. In Moore’s work we can look at a shirt or a photograph without fear of subterranean abduction: the pain is in the things themselves. Ultimately both poets succeed in expressing the difficult reciprocity of love and loss.
In the archetypal myth of poetic bereavement, Orpheus journeys to the underworld to bring back his wife Eurydice but loses her when he breaks his bargain with Death by looking back. Moore and Rees-Jones both move us on from this: they teach us that looking back is sometimes the only honest way out into the light.
To love someone is to live with the certainty of loss, something we prefer not to think about. Both these wonderful books show us how to look at it without flinching and to see it for what it is. Terrible, painful, but also strangely life-affirming.