REVIEW by Garry MacKenzie

NWR Issue r8

And She Was: A Verse-Novel

by Sarah Corbett

Has narrative poetry kept pace with developments in other narrative genres, such as film? And She Was is intensely poetic, in the sense that Sarah Corbett is both adept and restless in her uses of form, fragmenting the narrative into short poems which range from quatrains to shape poetry, and from lyrics in two voices to anaphoric lists of metaphors. At the same time, the central sequence in this book, ‘The Runner’, is an atmospheric and oblique mystery indebted (as the blurb points out) to filmmakers such as David Lynch. In ‘The Runner’ a man called Felix Morning wakes in an unknown city. He has no memory, and is guided by an enigmatic woman named Flick. He meets her in a café:

Booths in red plastic shine under chandeliers
glittery with grease and the bodies of flies.
A menu wedged between salt and pepper
says Stan’s in gothic script.

From this greasy spoon Felix eventually finds his way to a nightclub that’s a cocktail of sleaze and surrealism. His journey becomes a dream, or a nightmare, or an allegory, suddenly switching location to a muddy field and a path littered with beer cans and plastic bags. So far, so very Lynchian, a puzzle that refuses to yield to rationalisation. Indeed, the more the reader tries to understand details as a pattern of symbolism, the more perplexing the whole narrative becomes. Yet there’s also an echo of epic poetry here, of journeys into underworlds more or less in the mind. Corbett combines Lynchian and epic motifs with the defamiliarised urban banal found in contemporary verse-novels such as Glyn Maxwell’s Time’s Fool.

What’s surprising and ultimately rewarding about And She Was is that Corbett doesn’t simply give us the neo-noir story of Felix and Flick. She frames this with two sequences that, we are led to suspect, have some connection to ‘The Runner’. These deal with two other characters, Esther and Iain, who have embarked on a destructively passionate affair. The first of these sections, ‘Nocturne in Three Movements’, bombards the reader with metaphors, resulting in a sense of disconnection rather than connection. The relentlessness of the imagery fits neatly with the jarring, obsessive and potentially damaging relationships contained in the plot. As in other works by Corbett, intimacy and distance are important themes here, and these are explored in the book’s structure and forms, as well as in the overlapping tales of its main characters.

The closing section, ‘Pinkie’, has something of Ted Hughes’ Crow to it. Its erotic poems are tinged with disturbing surrealism:

our bodies move as one joined
snake enters and devours
to return whole from the throat

Images of scars, mutilation and memories of sexual abuse haunt these poems. Among the dense and often grotesque imagery which overwhelms this section’s narrative, there are simple stanzas which remain harrowing long after reading:

On my fifth birthday I made a peg doll,
Crayon eyes and nipples, pink tissue skirt,
Married her to another peg,
Jammed their legs until they split.

This is a disorienting section, at the end of disorienting book. The kaleidoscopic variations in form and the narrative ambiguity, result in a work that’s both compelling and frustrating. Instinctively, we want to locate the heart of the story, but in many of the poems this heart is obscured or withheld. Yet this is the point: rather than a linear narrative, And She Was is cinematic and strange, an exploration of how memory deals – or fails to deal – with passion and hurt. The reader struggles with connection and disconnection in the same way as the protagonists. The pay-off comes in the concluding poem, ‘Running’, which turns the story on its head, leading the reader back to the start of this dark labyrinth.

Garry MacKenzie has a PhD in contemporary landscape poetry from the University of St Andrews. His book, Scotland: A Literary Guide for Travellers is published by IB Tauris next month (June 2016).


previous review: From the Horse’s Mouth
next review: Pigeon


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