REVIEW by Jonathan Doyle

NWR Issue 102

Crown of Thorns

by Bethany W Pope

Crown of Thorns, the latest collection of poetry by Bethany W Pope, is a visceral and unflinching account of the struggle to preserve spirit when faced with exterior challenges that penetrate to the very core.

The structure of the collection is significant, with Pope utilising the sonnet form to great effect. The first, title, section, ‘Crown of Thorns’, is a Heroic Crown of sonnets: fifteen interlinked poems where the fifteenth, the ‘jewel in the crown’, is made up of the first lines of the preceding fourteen. Next comes ‘House of Masks’ and ‘Rabbit Trap’, two more Heroic Crowns that, although shorter in length, again highlight the masterful craft required to not only successfully piece together this structure but to do so without compromising the quality of each individual piece.

Not content with these self-imposed rules, the final section, ‘Bloodlines,’ is further complicated to become what Pope calls an Emperor Crown of sonnets. This elaborate work of linguistic art comprises three Heroic Crowns which detail a continuous narrative. If that wasn’t enough, the section is also an acrostic, so that the combined first letters of each line read as a poem of their own. The effect is of something strangely organic, a sense of many intricacies functioning effortlessly in unison towards some common goal.

Such feats could be admired solely for their technical achievement, but Pope does not let stylistic factors overshadow the overall aesthetic and meaning of her work. Preconceptions of poetry tend to conjure sparse abstractions – beautiful but vague suggestions of a theme or narrative, a pretty skeleton which the reader must dress with untold viscera, muscle, skin and hair. Pope, however, provides more than elegant bones. Although her form is careful, the words contain all of the sinews and gristle that constitute a full being. Refusing to shy away, to merely suggest, Pope’s work descends into past trauma with courage and determination, neither glorifying the brutality and struggle nor skirting around them. Her poems read somewhere between poetry and prose in terms of detail – quite an achievement considering the strict structure she has chosen.

The collection is somewhat of a paradox. The stubborn details of violence and suffering are coupled with a lyrical elegance that finds beauty and wonder not only in the resilience of love but also in adversity itself. Here the title gains further meaning: not only is Christ’s ordeal the classic image of violence and love but he also represents a startling coexistence of suffering and mercy. Jesus Christ did not transform his pain into something that saved him, but rather embraced it, allowed it a mystical meaning, displayed it for others. His actions were not of self-preservation, rather, he held aloft the spectacle of suffering so that others could find comfort. Crown of Thorns may not provide the writer with an antidote to hardship but it shares something that can act as a remedy for others.

And this is where the true strength of Pope’s collection lies. While the form is exceptionally intricate and meticulously structured, and the sprawling sentences and detailed narratives challenge the stereotypes of poetry, it is the themes and emotions that shine through. While the Heroic and Emperor Crowns are admirable, and the acrostic ‘Bloodlines’ impress with their linguistic gymnastics, what stays with the reader is the depiction of the plight of a human’s soul in the face of torment and grief. If the technical ability is the kindling to draw the attention, the narrative and emotion provide the embers that glow steadily for weeks. Like a seed that lodges in the brain and slowly germinates, the deeper meanings emerge gradually long after the final sonnet has been read. The reader emerges with an empathetic understanding of pain, an appreciation of suffering that embodies more than mere sympathy, and a recognition of the human condition to which we are all exposed.

Jonathan Doyle is a Zoology graduate and writer from south Wales. He runs the music website Wake The Deaf and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University.




       


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