REVIEW by Kittie Belltree

NWR Issue 100

She Inserts the Key

by Marianne Burton

Flowers are not fragile
They rise again,
ripe and capricious,

they petal over cracks in concrete,
seed in the mulch of our dead.

‘The Flowers’

Award winning poet Marianne Burton opens She Inserts the Key with a poem that embodies the tones and textures of her debut collection. In ‘The Flowers’ Burton’s alert and refreshing approach to nature illustrates the multi-hued surface, as well as the unsettling seam of darkness, that simmers beneath many of her poems.

The collection is brimming with voices and curious narratives. Burton has a talent for measured, precise anecdotes, and simple, spare accounts of bizarre and fantastical characters. There is an obese woman whose body is slowly saponified (‘The Woman Who Turned to Soap’); singing wallpaper (‘Three Songs of The Inarticulate’), and an Emperor who cannot make love without ‘the repetitive metal singing’ of a clockwork nightingale (‘The Emperor and the Nightingale’), the opening line of which forms title of this collection.

The incongruity of these varied voices is balanced by the sequence ‘Meditations on the Hours’, an extended, lyrical record of the observations of time and place, and, ostensibly, mundane, everyday situations:

Octopus pasta on the Stendhal sleeper
comes briny with body sacs, like finger
ends of rubber gloves. Not one tentacle.

The whole journey’s been a disappointment,
grinding sleepless over border points
in short single bunks, sulky with sweat.

‘9am: The Bed: Venice’

This sequence, although centred on the domestic and personal, offers a wider vision, and its placement forms the backbone of the collection.

Burton’s poems frequently move towards a juncture where the vision and voice transform, and the poem takes an unexpected turn. ‘For a Plain Man’, which won first prize in the Mslexia, 2006 poetry competition, takes the subject of a person’s handwriting, offering a lush, vivid dalliance with language: ‘swooping’ and delighting ‘in a fanfare of loops and curlicues’, ‘galliards’, and

rococo scripts whimsical
enough to summarise the man you prayed
you would become, just to spite them.

From this point, the poem changes course, moving into the final stanza, and uncovering the poem’s bitter undertones with the line ‘None of it comforts you of course’.

This sudden, sinister stroke appears again in such poems as ‘Owls at Midnight’; which was runner up in The Cardiff International Poetry Competition, 2009; ‘The Anagram Kid’; the intriguingly existential ‘Sum of our Parts’, a winner in the Parallel Universe Science Poetry Competition 2010; and ‘The Devil’s Cut’. This was the title poem of Burton’s first pamphlet – a Poetry Book Society Choice – and demonstrates her technique, beginning with mundane observations and recitals, and turning ever more macabre as the poem progresses towards its sinister conclusion.

Throughout the collection, Burton’s sharpness of language and form are evident. This works well with the anecdotal poems where the juxtaposing of the fantastical with the formal creates a satisfying tension, by placing the poems’ content and form in an interesting dialogue. But overall, it is a technique which Burton relies on too heavily. There is a dryness to these poems, where technique seems to dominate emotion, and the denouement, which was surprising when first encountered, becomes expected.

Burton’s strongest use of language appears in her nature poems, particularly ‘Sparrow Hawk’, ‘Wren Spilling into Water’ and ‘Dragonfly’. The language is loose and fresh, capturing the energy and unpredictability of the natural world through Burton’s sheer delight in language, without reliance on form or technique. Nonetheless, these remain finely crafted poems. The best examples in this category are ‘The River Flowing Under The Bank of England Dreams of Power’, where the language is so vivid and voluptuous it positively bursts from the page, and the gorgeously abundant ‘Pissarro’s Orchards’. This is a sonnet where the words themselves take centre stage as Burton playfully weaves the names of thirteen different fruits between the beginnings and ends of the lines:

Fruit trees are beauty in themselves. I shall ban
anacondas seducing Eve, slithering over her lap
pleading for her to take a bite. I shall veto gang
rapes of nymphs by satyrs; will have no gods or
angels. No feather-hatted naked madam,
son complaining as he is stung by nectar-
inebriated bees;

Burton’s slight over-reliance on technique aside, She Inserts the Key is a richly rewarding, memorable and stylish debut collection. The range of subjects covered warrants many re-readings, as does the sensuous use of language and sharp, intelligent vision.

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previous review: The Crawshay Portraits exhibition at the National Museum of Wales
next review: God Loves You


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