REVIEW by John Redmond

NWR Issue r17

This is Not a Rescue

by Emily Blewitt

Although poets rarely trumpet the fact, every book of poems - from Harmonium to Acrimony from The Nightfishing to Citizen - is a selfie. In the work of debutants, this is usually clear – and sometimes it is too clear. The pressure of choosing a self-image - one that could last for one’s writing life (shall I be solemn or sunny? frank or cryptic? guarded or confessional?) – can unduly strain a first book, not least because the author may be trying too many options. Indeed, the associated anxiety – the sheer mental effort - of making such choices, may be what the reader most readily perceives.
Some of these anxieties and pressures are evident in Emily Blewitt’s likeable debut, This is Not a Rescue – but not in a crippling way. Carefully constructed and shot through with good-humour this is a book which radiates charm. At a time when political poetry seems ever more in the ascendant, these poems are refreshingly free of public commentary. Here is a book which bears no trace of Brexit/ Trump – our contemporary “one story only”. The lyric self that is displayed here is an uncomplicated one built principally out of family and romantic relationships. Closely observed men – and cats - are favourite subjects and a number of poems are given over to their categorisation:

… Every office has some –
you know the men I mean. The ones that are reluctant
to fly; the ones that hiss when threatened.

To the degree that the book has any politics at all, then to adapt a phrase of Clifford Geertz, it is a politics of the skin’s edge. The poems are relentlessly physical, and at the same time, worried about the body. Rarely does a poem go by without mention a body-part, and such references often occur in the context of some kind of suffering – one or two of the poems have the effect of a doctor reaching for medical notes.
To speak non-pejoratively, the book is backward-looking. If the past is indeed another country, then it is one which the author repeatedly, enthusiastically, visits. The second poem, ‘Devouring Jane’, for example, records the speaker’s devotion to reading Austen, and considers the relative appeal of various male characters in her fiction:

Sinewy Willoughby,
thin as a rake, studies my face
like a starving cat.

Darcy abstains,
but owns a library
fat with first editions.

The book’s ‘pre-electric’ quality is less a matter of candles and four-poster beds, of witches and dowries, of folk-tales and folk-wisdom (although all of these are present) and more to do with treating the past in a deferential manner. Here we find an ephebe (to use one Bloomean expression) who is fully conscious of her belatedness (to use another), who accepts that the past knows more, that it is worth learning from. Even when making an excursion into science-fiction - assessing the romantic appeal of the Star Wars character, Boba Fett - the result is curiously retro:

And when he falls into you, plunges
To your death’s head,
You taste his manhood.
You suck and suck and suck.

In general, Blewitt prefers the role of student to master and her embrace of edification is itself edifying. Many of the poems revolve around the act of telling or of being told, of showing, of demonstration. The imperative tense is widely used. The poem, ‘Things My Dance Teacher Used to Say’, is immediately followed by a poem called ‘Self-Defence’, a series of sayings gleaned from a course-instructor. The instructional style of some titles - one poem is called ‘How to Marry a Welsh Girl”, another ‘How to Explain Hiraeth to an Englishman’ - is also revealing.
Blewitt’s influences are of the mainstream – the beguiling title-poem struck me as pitched somewhere between Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’ and Sexton’s ‘Her Kind’. There are also hints of Plath, of Duffy and, in the sequence, ‘Gifts from Crows’ (which features a talking crow) of Hughes. There are some blemishes – some of the poems are too slight or too flat and there is occasional recourse to off-the-shelf poeticisms: “his eyes/ are ocean”. Overall, though, this is far from being a pretentious book. The author, who partly specialises in 19th century literature, actually makes less of her academic hinterland than might have been expected. Abstruse references are few. The personality that the reader encounters is natural and recognisable – a major element of the book’s appeal. And the best poems have a controlled and pleasing music:

He’ll spot the pebbles that in secret you have sewn
into your skirts and give you his penknife to unpick them.
you can’t swim with those. He’ll teach you to skim. The pebbles
break the surface like question-marks. You’ll throw each last one in.

Buy this book at gwales.com



       


previous review: Three Japanese Novellas
next review: Guests of Time: Poetry from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History



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