Sell me, the house says, sell me.
I'm tired of you,
the way you neglect me,
don't quite see me any more.
The way you gaze through me every night
as if you wanted something else. (The House to its Owner)
This lippy house is one of several opinionated edifices and locations in Catherine Fisher's long-awaited new collection. An ominous row of conifers near Avebury deters a walker; a woman living in a building converted from a cinema finds her flat full of images from its past:
In bed she sleeps among the other couples,
a rapid flicker of embraces
while, in what for me was a stand-out poem, "The Building and the Boy", a classic fairytale castle in a forest entraps and defeats a potential explorer as it has done many before. This building has mixed feelings; it develops a fondness for its hapless challengers:
He leaves a trail of breadcrumbs,
unravels wool his mother made him bring,
marks corners with his name, doors with initials […]
The building smiles. The building feels quite tickled.
Rather likes the artless images.
Closes the gate carefully. Withdraws the bridge.
Fisher has always played variations on myth, but while some of those here are recognisably traceable to different sources, like the Odyssey and the Mabinogi, others, like the sentient Building, the "Clockwork Crow" and the "Daughter of the Sun", feel more archetypal, indeed as if their ultimate source might be the inside of the poet's head. And even the Sleeping Beauty sequence subverts its source; this sounds more like a princess in a coma, who may always have been more conscious than she looked. The back cover's description of "darkly resonant" is more apt than these sometimes are; there is a thread of darkness running through most of these poems. The cover picture is a detail from Botticelli's "Primavera", and it relates to the poem "Post-War", about the moment when Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and others happened on a cache of priceless paintings stored in Montegufoni castle for fear of bombing. The painting is an allegory on the coming of spring, and the poem too ends on an optimistic note, of rebirth "despite the dead. Despite everything". Yet when one looks carefully at the detail selected, things are more complicated. The image shows Flora's hands and arms against her dress covered in red-pink flowers. Her lacy sleeves are red-tinted too, and look for all the world as if the arms beneath are bleeding. Which could be so, because in Ovid's version, which this poem references, Flora was originally a wood-nymph, Chloris, ("green"), who is ravished by the West Wind and, in the act, turns into the goddess of spring, "flowers spilling from her mouth". The story may be a fanciful gloss on how green shoots turn to blossom, but it is a dark tale, the red flowers too reminiscent of blood for any sentimental comfort. Spring survives the war, as did the painting, "despite the dead", but that does not alter the facts of death and suffering.
It is the dark thread, the blood among the flowers, that gives these poems their vigour and vim. Those already familiar with Fisher's acclaimed YA fantasy novels will find the same blend of lyricism and violence here. There's even a clockwork crow.