Review

Redgrove's Wife — Penelope Shuttle

Bloodaxe
Price £8.95

Redgrove’s Wife is Penelope Shuttle’s ninth poetry collection and arguably her most important work in a successful career as a poet spanning twenty-five years. In her first book with Bloodaxe (surprisingly Carcanet didn’t republish her) we find Shuttle at her most open and veridical. These are poems written during 2000-2005, a period when she lost two of the closest people in her life: her father and her husband (the extraordinary poet Peter Redgrove).

Those familiar with the conjuring abilities of Shuttle's previous work will not be surprised that she offers up something of an unusual grief map. Though we realise from the outset that Shuttle is writing through loss, she is frequently found to be objectifying it or looking for ways to transform death into a renewal of life itself. Many of the early poems in Redgrove's Wife place an importance on everyday objects or rituals that are tempered by absence. A pair of Redgrove's shoes are thrown out taking with them many walks together. A spider’s hustling persistence and capacity for work shine as an example of forward momentum. Indoors we find Shuttle perceiving that even A jug of water / has its own lustrous turmoil.

These, we sense, are observations essential to the poet if she is to find any cognizance in grieving. The strength of facing her up to loss head-on while keeping faith in the world is a double-handed task and one that Shuttle is candid about. As she explains…I am trying to love the world / back to normal.

The book's opener, Songs, mourns through waterish eyes full of ghostly greens / and golds. Tears, initially shed for her father, move through the air to coasts and orchards where her vision of grief exists alongside the memory of a father-song that glistens with rubies and diamonds. Ultimately in the poem, Shuttle's memories of her father invite the idea of ‘beauty and history’ as a way to outlast her own anguish. The quick-moving imagery in this tightly-packed poem is powerfully yet concrete. It's writing with a knowingness of the natural world as a key to unlocking grief. Another early poem, To Be Whispered, is incredibly heartfelt throughout and it too insists on open air, away from the house, where the poet is like an alphabet / refusing to breed in captivity:

If I was twilight,
or a cliff shadow, or one of those feline spiders
you loved,
I’d follow in your new life
as salt water,

not returning to the empty house
where nothing of you lingers

Missing You – a twenty-four-part poem sequence – is where we find Shuttle at her most exposed and autobiographical. Many of the short poems are cleverly repetitive, suggesting the cyclical effects of grieving, but they are not the best poems in the collection. Generally the series threads together well; the poems are brave and frequently underscored by Shuttle's unswerving love for her late husband. Often we find Redgrove being addressed directly and, at times, it almost feels as if we, the reader, are eavesdropping. The best lines are poignant, even prophetic:

Death is the feather in your cap,
the source of your fame,
my darkest lesson

Despite its overall success, the Missing You sequence is a fringe overlong and not all the poems are winners. Missing You #2, for example, with its overuse of multi-corporation names (cue Asda, Boots and Woolworths) is visceral and honest but would be better off without constant high-street brand naming (wouldn’t all poems?). It’s a little like seeing a close-up of a Pepsi can in a decent film noir. Disappointingly, the big corporations also reappear in the otherwise excellent January x 2.

Essentially, Redgrove’s Wife achieves more when roping in the enigmatic and the ethereal and bringing these elements into the natural world. The most re-readable poems delve outside domesticity and strive to reach across rivers and continents. Missing You #6 ends:

You preferred astronomer’s weather,
sciences of the birds

You were a prayer across the Orinoco,
a Tiber fitting me to perfection

Throughout the remainder of Redgrove's Wife we find Shuttle taking on a wide sweep of writing styles and subject matter with confidence and wisdom. Veering thematically from the earlier section of the book, these are not poems strictly about grief. Totality and The Bat of Totality form half of the stunning Eclipse x 4 sequence and are among the best poems in the book. Refreshingly un-British in pitch, Shuttle finds beauty in the ‘total dark’ before it loosens into brightness. The observation of the brief sun/moon eclipse is delivered with luminosity and true poetic wonderment of what holds between the known and concealed world of, in this case, light and darkness.

Elsewhere, months of the year arrive new-fangled and are expertly recast. September arrives as a floating classroom / for studying the great lakes. April takes its ill wind from town to town…unfolding the emptiest lily, the wettest rose. There are also quirky list-poems concerning post-office regulations and footnotes, plus some hauntingly apocalyptic weather poems, The Glimpse being an ace example. As with previous Shuttle collections, we find some subtly erotic poems; Azucar, with its cunning allusions towards self-pleasure show a trademark audacity. It’s not much to other people…And it hurts no-one but me.

These are closely worked poems of inventive force and occasional humour (essential to a collection half-built on lament) delivered, against the odds, in a climate of a double bereavement. Overall, Redgrove's Wife is a testament to Shuttle's creative dexterity and resourcefulness, confirming her position in contemporary British poetry as a distinctive poet of dynamic imagination.

James Byrne

 

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