REVIEW by Vicky MacKenzie

NWR Issue r6

A Boat Called Annalise

by Lynne Hjelmgaard

Hjelmgaard is a New Yorker who lives in London; she has connections to Wales through her daughter, who resides in Aberystwyth, and she also worked on poetry with the late Dannie Abse. A Boat Called Annalise travels further afield, describing a trip made by the poet and her late husband to the Caribbean.

Poets have always been inspired by travel, writing about feelings of wanderlust, the lure of the exotic, and the craving for familiarity when far from home. Hjelmgaard uses lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Questions of Travel’ as her epigraph:

'Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?'

This sets the tone for a philosophical approach to journeying, and the old question of what might have been, had other roads ‘less travelled’ been chosen.

The reader expects a more profound response to travel from poets than mere postcards and snapshots, and whilst Hjelmgaard’s latest collection offers more than that, there’s something disappointingly flat-footed about these memories of ocean-going. The collection is in four sections and Part One is the most engaging, full of vivid descriptions of the voyage out. The poet uses sound, spacing and repetition to capture the sensation of being at sea:

I listen to the wash of waves,

wash of waves.

The use of repetition and shrill vowel sounds convey the physical effort of sea-faring: ‘My husband adjusts the jib sheet, / cranks the winch tight, and tighter.’ (‘That Feeling of Boat’)

One gets a sense it is her husband who is the adventurer – as is so often the case, the dreams of one partner steering the life of the other. ‘Seamanship’ shows the poet getting her sea legs as she adjusts to life onboard, but the lines can also be read as a comment on marriage: ‘Don’t hold any grudges./ What other way is there / to handle life at sea?’

By contrast, Part Two, ‘On Shore’, is rather disappointing – the language is seldom under much pressure and the landscape of the islands is vague and predictable, with talk of ‘Lushness and green’: an armchair traveller’s vision rather than what we might hope from one who was there. When the description does move away from the predictable, it’s more puzzling than enlightening: ‘A cockroach big as a crunchy bird.’ What might a ‘crunchy bird’ be?

Inevitably, paradise is not all it seems, but the language is flat and offhand: ‘The shacks were not bright pink and blue, / like those along the waterfront. // Sick brown, dark beige. / The palm trees didn’t look too healthy either.’ (‘The Ferry Called When)

If home preoccupies her thoughts when away, then the sea is on her mind when back on dry land. In ‘Directions’ she misses the intensity of the relationship she had with her husband at sea:

I dream of you on top of a sail-bag on deck
Musty scents of the bilge on our bodies and clothes.
No one – nothing else.

After their return, the poet’s husband dies, and collection is imbued with a sense of elegy and the importance of memory. In ‘Morning at Sea’, the poet poses questions, echoing Bishop’s lines from the epigraph: ‘Who were we looking for? / What did we leave behind?

For every journey made, there is a life at home unlived; every choice leaves the many roads not taken in its wake. The frailty of the body is echoed in the descriptions of the boat: ‘We learned to care / for her bronze, steel and wood, / devotedly washed and rubbed / all her curves and corners.’ (‘Postscript: Because of the Beauty of the Ship Herself’)

There’s a metaphor lurking here – the ship as a body unable to care for itself, but as with much of the collection, there’s a sense that the language has not yet fully set sail.

Vicky MacKenzie is a PhD student on contemporary poetry and science at St Andrew’s University, lives in eastern Scotland and is writing a novel about John Ruskin.

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