Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

"Of Mutability" by Jo Shapcott (Faber, 2010)

Like many writers, Shapcott got the bug early and had an emotional upset. In a Guardian interview she says that "She was always a great reader, "pathologically so", and an early, faintly obsessive interest in synchronised swimming was diverted by teachers ... It was a happy childhood, which ended abruptly when she was 18, with the sudden, unexpected death of her parents, within a month of one another". In 2003 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said "It is like stepping into a different world, where there are different rules, ways of behaving, ways of seeing". More recently she's widened her interests - "Over the last few years, she has taken science course after science course with the Open University, and she also has a deep passion for videogames - which she shares with her friend and fellow poet, Don Paterson".

It's difficult to read this book without some of the above information having an influence. Because Shapcott's not an overtly autobiographical poet, readers might see extra significance in what might otherwise be a simple enjoyment of the outdoors, or the comforts of a cup of tea. It's her first book of original poems for a decade. That too might affect what reviewers feel they can say.

"Mutability" is the ability to change - to recover. Cells can change in bad ways, but we depend on their ability to change, their replacement. As it says in "Viral Landscape", "gut epithelium is five days old at most ... my cerebral and visual cortex is as old as me". The title poem addresses this ambivalence, mixing different domains of interest: the physical and spiritual, the symbolic and social - "Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets,/angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye,/join them if you like, learn astrophysics, or/learn folksong, human sacrifice, mortality,/flying, fishing, sex without touching much". "join them" could mean "join them up", connect them together as poets do. Travel doesn't seem an escape, and besides there's no escaping destiny; the poem ends with - "Don't trouble, though, to head anywhere but the sky.".

There are many rooms ("The Bet" is about trying to stay awake in a room for a long time). Even when a narrator's outside there's a tendency to look for details or probe within something to make the unseen visible (most explicitly with "I Go Inside the Tree"). Inside/Outside is an abiding theme, hence the mentions of bubbles, membranes, and surface tension. There's sometimes a desire to integrate inside and outside, absorb - "I breathe in and become everything I see" ("Deft"); "the first snowflake, mouth open to taste it, primed to ingest all the weathers" ("For Summer"). Sometimes the world takes the initiative - "I went outside and found the landscape/which had eaten my heart" ("Viral Landscape").

"Myself Photographed" is one of the few poems that look back, the details in the old image provoking several types of "new ways of seeing" - oak ("leaf, leaf"), high grass ("hay tickle"); dodgy ankle ("friendly old pain"); mouth ("charged tongue"); body cells ("Hope").

There are at least 7 mentions of "dust", and several of "tea". Music and trees feature too. "Border Cartography" is a sequence of themed poems (my favorite being "Montgomery"). I wondered if the tree poems could have been shortened into a sequence too.

Several of the images are beyond me - "Razor small" in "Of Mutability", for example or "the fields were full of water, the ground an unlicked sponge" (from "Forecast" - but why would one lick a sponge even if it's a cake? To get the icing off? No, too complicated. Maybe "unsqueezed" rather than "unlicked"?). Some poems (not just the one called "Riddle") are beyond me - "Religion for Girls", "Religion for Boys", "Sinfonietta for London" and "The Gypsies' Tales of Ovid" for example. "The Oval Pool" refers directly or indirectly to work by Helen Chadwick according to the Acknowledgements, which is nice to know, because otherwise the poem puzzles me. There are a few poems that I think I understand but I don't see the point of - "The Bet" and "Piss Flower" for instance. I liked "La Serenissima", "Scorpion", "Night Flight from Muncaster", "Border Cartography", "Uncertainty is Not a Good dog", and was interested by "Somewhat Unravelled".

Some poems are sonnet-shaped. There are 2-line-stanza poems and prose poems ("Scorpion"'s sentences all start with "I kill it"). There's always been a prose-poem element in her work. This is the first 20 lines of "La Canterina", a 1.5 page poem - "I can spring as high and nimbly as a flea; and I can execute twenty entrechats in sequence without pausing for breath, at each leap clicking my heels eight times: I can do the same for all the entrepas and I swear I make even the best of all the rest a block of stone. I like to add a detail or two to any complex dancing". Doing the ruthless sums (taking into account the time since her last book) this is 2 months work. Would a prose writer be happy with this as a morning's work? The 2nd half of the poem is better, but the set-up's too long. I felt that with some of the other poems too.

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