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Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Vanitas by Ann Drysdale, pub. Shoestring Press 2019


I watch you go, as all have gone before,
lurching from accident to consequence.

This is a collection that is upfront about where its poetry comes from. A long life of wide reading is one source. The title of the first poem, UPON FIRST LOOKING INTO A GIDEON BIBLE, invites an overt comparison with Keats's breathless mind-travelling through Homer. But the travellers the hotel bible addresses, who "measure out your lives in rented rooms", are on no such epic journey. What the book might have to say to them is irrelevant, since they are unlikely to take it out of the drawer; it becomes, instead, a rather ironic symbol of permanence in their transient world:

     that you are simply a coincidence.
     I am a constant, a sad paradigm
     for shrinking distance and compressing time.

This is an unusually overt literary reference, most of them are more embedded, the natural consequence of wide reading. This gives the poems a deep hinterland, as when in "Just Desserts", a poem in which cooking and eating are used to exorcise the ghosts of past relationships, the casual phrase "The crimson currant merges with the white" distantly echoes a Tennysonian love poem.

Many are rooted too in real land, the rural setting in which the poet practised shepherding. In "The Lyke-Wake Talk", an imagined funeral, a life is distilled to, and recalled by, various places that were focal points in it, in a way reminiscent of how the custom of beating the bounds was meant to fix a local landscape in people's minds.

One of the most notable features of this collection is its wide verbal register, all the way from the formality of the opening poem through to dogspeak (think Les Murray and cows) in the first poem of the sequence "Dog Days". I especially admired the forensic accuracy, not to mention sheer interest and unexpectedness, in "A Sea View". Beginning in a deliberately alarming, disorienting way:

     There are crisp legs spread all over the balcony
     pink and white, artless and opened up to the sky

we soon meet the culprit:

     The white bird tumbles clumsily out of the sun
     carrying a small crab like a novelty reticule
     held ostentatiously in its tight tweezer-beak,
     every leg pedalling, each one on its unicycle

That "novelty reticule" is pitch-perfect, as indeed is the whole poem. So, most of the time, is her more colloquial register – Jack the house-martin with his "new build" under the eaves. The only time it ever jars is on the few occasions when it slides into the non-adult. I don't know if this is just my personal quirk but for me, words like "whiffy" and "stinky" are too much the province of schoolchildren to look at ease in adult poems.

If animals and birds figure prominently, so do childhood memories, and they are all well evoked, but though this is natural subject matter for any writer, there is a problem in that we have all read so many "I remember" poems. It's a theme, therefore, that needs something special in order to work, and the best example of that in this collection is "Too Much Sky", a war memory that only announces itself as such via the date in the epigraph. Here the memory is enough out of the common to startle, yet because we are seeing through a child's eyes we can identify with it. She finds a similarly original way into the much-used theme of bereavement, not many have adopted her technique of allowing the loved ghost to age in her mind:

     There on my left, as ever, lies your ghost,
     hunched in the still-familiar position.
     I’ve let it age with me so I won’t lose it.
     Pursing my lips I blow the fine white hair
     that strives to hide the vulnerable scalp
     making a place to plant a phantom kiss

Her concerns range from the very serious, like bereavement here, and incipient dementia in "Connie Calls", to the completely whimsical, like the dung-beetle likened to a football player dribbling a rather unusual ball. The whimsy will not work for everyone, for nothing is so personal a taste as humour. But it is the ever-present consciousness and possibility of humour that often humanises the darker poems and staves off any hint of sentimentality. The sign-off in "Way To Go", where the speaker's ghost hops down from a horse-drawn hearse to help the street urchin coming behind with his bucket, is wryly typical.

Vanitas is available from Shoestring here