The s**r you steer by: Claire Trévien

When I wrote about Claire Trévien’s first collection The Shipwrecked House in 2013, I had never met the author. Since then we’ve collaborated on readings and an anthology, been sounding-boards for each other’s scribblings-in-progress, and shared more than a few glasses of wine. So what follows can’t pretend to be an objective “review” of Claire’s second collection Astéronymes (and there are plenty of good examples of those already). But with that caveat, I wanted to put some thoughts down because I think this book is doing something genuinely challenging, and the more I’ve come back to it over the past year, the more convinced I am that it’s really very good indeed.

Where The Shipwrecked House channelled the raw mythic energy of the sea into the everyday via a combination of linguistic play and protective humour — a kind of archetypal psychic origin-myth made safe by wordplay, but only just — Astéronymes zooms out to a broader historical perspective. Broader to the point of vertigo: the book’s sense of geological time is profoundly unsettling, with sea and stones obeying a rhythm too slow for our fleeting minds to register, each confrontation producing a startling short-circuit of language and imagery: grass is green like “a monitor failure”, evolution an “upgrade”, a sunken city rippling a semantic field of voicemails, recording and circuits. By repeatedly conceptualising the natural world in terms of modern life and technology, these poems underscore the patience of the former and the transience of the latter. Their “now” is acutely conscious of being one moment in an impossible vastness of dead time and contingency (“other architectures / have rusted under the sun”). Everything is saturated with poignancy and deep-time loss, like the red sun burning out at the end of history in The Time Machine, or Jack Vance without the sexism — but in a register that’s life-affirming rather than nihilistic.

This effect is all the more powerful because it’s mostly in the background. Yes, there are occasional “On a Raised Beach” moments (“Stromatolites / timehop to the Precambrian”), but the book’s focus is more often on small-scale, knowable details: friendship, love, writing, journeys; the balletic verbal display of a hyper-literate modern consciousness that cares deeply about the things it encounters and that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But always, in the lexis and the filters and at the edge of your vision, that insistent rippling of loss.

If this makes Astéronymes sound heavy-going then the truth is anything but. These poems are a joy to read, and the same verbal humour that lit up The Shipwrecked House is evident throughout. In “Rollright Stones” a group of men “interrupt my poem / about unknowable history”; “The Museum of Author Corrections” is a working prototype for a self-trolling text; a depiction of a horse is “too original to / carry credibility”; even the end of a friendship is filtered through the social equivalent of gallows humour (“I’ve filled my inbox with salt / to preserve your emails”).

There’s a natural link between the book’s obsession with (pre)historical process and its focus on the corresponding smaller-scale cognitive processes of writing and interpreting the world. Although poetry has been concerned with its own becoming since long before the Homeric poems first juggled bards and box-narratives, a version of the trick (rightly) got a bad name when too many poems in the late Twentieth Century defaulted to being self-referential as a substitute for having anything to say (and without the hard-won engagement with language that makes this kind of thing interesting beyond the poem’s own bubble: nobody cares about your creative process unless you give them reason to). That particular trend hit Peak Toss around the turn of the millennium, but books like Astéronymes remind us how powerful the foregrounding of process can be when done properly, i.e. when it takes us back to our own perpetual reconstructing of the world through language (“[t]he monster she saw / paddling / across the lawn / thickening with words”).

In the short year since Astéronymes was published we’ve seen the Br**** vote and the election of D***** T****. Re-reading it this morning, sipping coffee between the anxious American students on one table and the anxious Italian couple on another, I was strangely grateful for its reminder of our geological insignificance, our exposure to language’s mediating fictions, and our stubborn capacity for joy and humour and verbal conjuring come what may.