REVIEW by Anna Stenning

NWR Issue 99


by Anne Stevenson

Astonishment by Anne Stevenson

In spite of critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, Anne Stevenson’s poetry remains relatively unknown. Perhaps we can find in [bookkdep:9781852249472::Astonishment], her sixteenth collection of poetry and a reflection on the poet’s eighty years of life, something of an explanation. Although her life has clearly provided an abundance of rich material for poetry, this hasn’t produced an exercise in self-aggrandizement or catharsis. The experiences that stand out in this collection are the astonishing in the everyday. Seldom, in the everyday world of poetry, is a collection as astonishing as this.

Stevenson’s perspective, thoroughly appropriate to our ecologically troubled times, isn’t easily packaged for the culture industry. While overtly concerned with attitudes to technology, the earth and each other, Stevenson’s vision doesn’t directly address ‘problems’. Instead, and with an awareness of nature’s indifference to human schemes, Stevenson challenges us to consider the strains between technology, culture and nature. At the same time, and reflecting her influence in Romanticism, she demonstrates the imaginative potential for observation of nature. In doing so, Stevenson’s poetry balances a scientific viewpoint with feeling. ‘Spring Again’ reveals a concern to find hope in a world that is flawed in nature and through our carelessness. Although

The thrush is gone
from the brushwood sheaf,
and that blackened thorn’:

is a rack of hooks
with plastic sacks
to hang wet weather in [,]

the speaker suggests that we might join in the celebrations of spring:

In a light green haze,
Let’s try, with the practical birds,
To praise love’s ways

‘On Line’ addresses the tensions behind ‘instant communication’ in the contemporary world. Sitting on a train, the speaker reflects on the technology of her pristine copy of a nineteenth-century novel and her mother’s photo album, both of which remain articulate beyond the life spans of their respective authors. Through comparison with her electronically enabled fellow passengers, who are locked into a widening circle of self-referentiality, the speaker explores a feeling of cultural isolation. Refusing to conform to the temporal scales of technology, the speaker moves into wider reflection:

What a triumph of mobile technology, the four of us
spanning three centuries in the leg room of a cell,
each on a track of our own, mine certain for the terminal,

In the world beyond, jackdaws, engaged in their social habits, contend with the limits imposed on their habitats of ‘aborted woodland’. Yet even human-made boundaries are shown to be penetrated by greater forces:

Sunset. A star from a gash in the fire-coloured clouds
shone bright as an eye through our ghostly reflections.

Indeed, the perspective that Stevenson most often brings to her themes is of one who moves between places and times, sensitive to their distinctness but curiously distanced from events. She gets closest to her subject when she writes about music and art. The sudden panning-in that this involves can be dizzying, particularly when it treats a subject that requires specialist knowledge (for example, her poems on Rembrandt, the water church of Torcello, and those that refer to holography and Darwin).

Stevenson’s passion for music is conveyed with rhythmic dexterity in the title poem ‘It’s Astonishing’. Her theme of the tensions between the hard truth of the present and glories of the past is reflected in waves of stresses that are reined in by line endings. Yet a syntax that lurches over lines in the middle section of the poem reflects the pull of the reveries of childhood and the ‘wild left foot’ of the imagination. Stevenson’s interest in music is also reflected in the choice of poetic form: this collection includes many successful variations in the lyric, and a section of sonnets, traditional and experimental. Her exploits with the lyric include the full possibilities for rhyme. The emphasis on sound does not, however, distract from striking visual images – for example, the figures on the beach at Harlech. ‘What an alphabet soup’

the bay makes of them, these large fathered families
downloading their daughters and sons, sans serif and
sans grief, on the centrefold page of the sand.

More often than not, [bookkdep:9781852249472::Astonishment]is an exercise in the forensics of a life, paying as much attention to processes of memory, language and perception as the significance of the author’s life in particular. For example, in ‘An Exchange in the Time Bank’, the speaker ironically considers that her memories cannot substitute for further days, while in ‘Doppler’ the speaker identifies the altering emotional cadences of a life through time. The poems that most successfully balance the dictates of emotion and reason are those that pursue Stevenson’s quest to find meaning in Darwinian nature. Here, read ‘Constable Clouds and a Kestrel’s Feather’; or ‘Teaching My Sons to Swim in Walden Pond’:

What if – at some road fork in evolution –
we’d taken instead the dolphin’s way?
The seal’s, the otter’s? We need to swim
to keep that lost road open.

Anna Stenning is working towards a doctoral thesis, ‘What to make of a diminished thing': nature and place in the poetry of Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, 1912-1917 Frost’ at the University of Worcester. After completing her degree in philosophy at King's College London, she went on to work as a writer and non-fiction editor for several years before returning to her native East Anglia to complete a Masters in literature and environmental studies at the University of Essex. Her dissertation was entitled ‘Literary Illumination: a study in the use of celebratory narratives in Nature Cure, by Richard Mabey, The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard’.


previous review: Murmur
next review: Patagonia – Byd Arall/Otro Mundo/Another World


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