REVIEW by Pippa Marland

NWR Issue 103

Crossing the North Sea

by Susanna Roxman

Susanna Roxman was born in Stockholm, though her father’s family are Scottish and she writes in English. Her work includes a study of emblems of classical deities, and a book on the novels of Margaret Drabble. Crossing the North Sea is her third poetry collection for the Edinburgh-based press Dionysia.

As the title suggests, this is a work preoccupied with crossings. Some are literal - given the author’s dual Scandinavian and Scottish roots it is perhaps no surprise that one poem should be entitled ‘Crossing the North Sea from Stavanger to the Shetlands’ – but the collection is also full of the resonances of other more metaphorical crossings. Roxman is fascinated by the process of moving between one state of being and another, and with liminality – the space in which one is poised at the threshold of new possibilities. One of the ways this interest manifests itself is in an almost yearning regard for those people whose ways of understanding the world enable them to embrace different identities. In ‘Lappic Shamans’, for example, Roxman evokes visionaries for whom the distinctions between human and animal are blurred,

they saw arms as wings
feet as claws, wore
feathers next to their skin

and who are able to access dimensions of experience not usually available to the human mind: ‘Sleep became the ford to other worlds.’ Likewise, in ‘Self-Portrait as a Mermaid, Skye’, we encounter an idealised creature who rarely wishes ‘to be wholly human’, happily existing between sea and air: ‘Being a two-world inhabitant defies / alienation or undue strain.’ In the poem, Roxman posits the existence of a kind of necessary duality which at the same time requires the mermaid’s (and perhaps also the poet’s) mediation:

More, I’m the negotiator, my task is to unite
opposites, peaks to chasms, firmness to ripples, daybreak
needing dusk, ebb implying flow

However, this task of bringing about union is one in which success proves elusive. Sometimes it can only be accomplished with the assistance of illusion and disguise. In a collection rich in cultural references, three poems take characters from Shakespeare plays and rework them imaginatively. Tellingly, two of the plays might be included in the category of ‘problem plays’ given their uneasy mix of tragedy and comedy and their ambivalent resolutions, and all three feature characters who witness, facilitate or actively engage in confusions of identity. Feste is recast as a woman in ‘The Fool, Twelfth Night’, once again as someone acting in more than one sphere of existence;

Highly intelligent for a human, she connects
two great houses, without wholly
belonging to either

The physical form of the poem itself mimes this duality, with its space set between each half of the line. In an allusion to Measure for Measure, ‘Isabella’ sees a woman wrestling with the instability of the self in the face of impossible decisions: ‘Constantly hunting for something else, / my face dissolving in the mirror,’ and reaching the understanding that the failure to establish a true identity is the worst punishment: ‘Consider now the agony and shame / of damnation: never being what one is.’ The narrator of ‘Paulina’, evoking the staging of the apparently miraculous transformation of Hermione from statue to living being in The Winter’s Tale, proclaims:

I’m someone who directs
and discloses,
pulling the dusty red velvet slowly to one side

There is an implicit longing throughout the collection for a means to draw aside the curtain and reveal our true identities. The idea that there may be other worlds and greater happiness lying always beyond our reach is one which haunts the text. In ‘As If’, Roxman dwells on the instability of the self in the face of lost love and frustrated plans: ‘Now I’m sloping smoke or snow / and it’s doubtful where I end / and dreams begin.’ Images of phenomena which obscure vision become dominant motifs – the adjectives ‘semi-transparent’, ‘opaque’ and ‘translucent’ recur, along with drizzle, mist and rain. It seems that happiness is in the end only achievable through some kind of unsustainable liminality. In ‘Perfect Happiness’, Roxman writes, ‘This is I, neither spirit nor body / but some halfway provisional house.’ But it is a tragically ephemeral state: ‘I’m turning into perfect happiness rather slowly. / It may burn for almost a quarter of an hour.’

Crossing the North Sea ends with two prose poems, ‘In the Pouring Rain’ and ‘At the Airport’. The former evokes a time of intense personal happiness which seems only possible in a city where the narrator is unknown, ‘translucent and weightless’, wrapped in the obscuring veil of a downpour. The latter describes the prelude to a journey which ultimately seems to symbolise our final departure from the earth, in an ‘almost completely spiritualized’, ‘almost wholly transparent’ state. The cumulative effect of the collection is powerfully unsettling: a tantalising sense of something evermore about to be, a potentiality always destined to be unachieved. It is haunted by the pain of ‘never being what one is’, at least not happily, or for any period of time. We are left with the abiding feeling of not being able to reach beyond the promise of liberating liminal states to any kind of substantial earthly resolution.

Pippa Marland is a contributor to New Welsh Review.


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