Sunday, 13 February 2011

Review: Admiral FitzRoy's Barometer by Pat Borthwick (Templar Poetry, 2008; ISBN 978-1-906285-20-3)

Yorkshire-based poet Pat Borthwick has won just about every poetry competition known to humankind. Admiral FitzRoy’s Barometer is her third full collection. It’s a slim, beautifully presented hardback volume that feels like it could have packed many more poems within.

As you might expect from a multiple prize-winning poet, this is a sophisticated collection. Many poems home in on minute details in the area where philosophy, nature and science intersect. Concepts such as the nature of light (At This Moment), the origins of matter (Stone), the meaning of empty space (At Least 51 Ways of Contemplating a Hole) and the origin of madness (The Tale) are explored in imagery that is ingenious, but filled with childlike wonder. A number of these poems reminded me strongly of Diana Syder’s brilliant Hubble collection. What is notable about these poems is that the poet’s choice of words remains uncomplicated and accessible, even when immersed in lofty ideas. The poems are clever, but never intellectual for their own sake.

Stone was my favourite of these. In it, the contemplation of a pebble becomes a dialogue in which both the poet and the stone seem to be suffering from the same existential angst:

“I hum a lullaby and one by one
its eyes begin to close.
Has my life been wasted? it dreams.
Was my voice too soft?

The poet wrings an enormous amount of pathos from a set of interlinked verses about a family. Whether this is the poet’s actual family, or a fictitious one, she is careful not to let on. Dark shadows of repression (Apple Pie), lies (One of My Fathers) and sexual abuse (Snake) are seldom far from the surface. The tender mother of Becoming Woman, comforting her newly pubescent daughter after a vivid nightmare, and the domineering matriarch of Apple Pie seem so far removed from one another that they could be (and perhaps are) two different characters entirely; but the similarity in the narrative voice left me a little confused as to which version of events I was supposed to believe. This confusion is one that the narrator apparently shares:

“Truth. Lie. Truth. Lie.
Our words balance against each other’s
then roll away, sticky as dough balls.”
(from Apple Pie)

Snake is the most gut-wrenching of these pieces, an allegory of sexual abuse and its consequences. The storytime monster under this child’s bed is all too real, and the effect in her later life is chilling:

“I’ve gained their confidence. Come up,
I’ll say, and then, in their jewelled tuxedos,
watch them stretch across my pillows...
...I’ve spent years
learning to unhook my jaw, perfect
the toxicity of digestive juices
so not a single drop’s superfluous.”

The dreadful dilemma of the pregnant rape victim of Katya, not knowing whether she will “kick it and its afterbirth / down the mountainside” or “say, Give me my baby, and... call it Katya”, echoes this theme. It disturbs and revolts the reader quietly, without any sense of preaching.

A more poignant note is sounded by another linked set of domestic poems, these ones exploring the memory of departed loved ones through the relics they leave behind: the broken chair leaning against the allotment shed in Chair, the memory of fading light and the radio in Forecast, the crumpled handkerchief containing “a shower of moths and butterflies / enough to fan the whole Earth” in The Wash. The images that these leave in the reader’s mind are of astonishing clarity, resonant with sadness as well as celebration of lives lived to the full. The Widower’s Button provides a sensitive variant on this theme, as the lover of an older man finds herself intruding unbidden in the world of his departed first wife:

“She must have used this same needle,
this same white thread,
easing them along cotton hems,
newly laundered shirts,
the smell of sheets fresh from the line.”

I felt, at times, that there was a risk of the images and metaphors becoming a bit too off-the-wall, too airy. Sometimes a Camel is full of images redolent of Noah’s Ark and those early-20th-century black and white animations, but left me baffled as to where it was going and what it was trying to say. Past Twelve O’Clock takes a memorial silence as its starting-point but finishes with the planet as a bell ringing in space, without any real sense of how we got there. I’m not sure if this was just me, failing to spot a vital connection that’ll be obvious to a more intelligent reader, or if these genuinely were poems designed to go spinning into the ether, never quite earthing themselves again.

If there is a structural weakness in the collection, it is the seemingly random disposition of the poems. Pieces which are closely related are scattered all over the collection, without any apparent sense of order. Perhaps this is to ensure that parts of the collection don’t become too bogged down in darker subject matter. But for me, a little more ebb and flow in the themes and moods would have strengthened the collection as a whole. The problem is at its most acute in Passing on the Tickle, where the implied reference to panpipes in the description of the reedbed is mystifying without first reading Interlude, which appears much later in the collection.

These minor reservations aside, Admiral FitzRoy’s Barometer is a strong collection of poems. Its distinguishing features are the original, often startling imagery and a deep sense of the poet’s intimate connection with the natural world and the loved ones who are honoured in the poems. Humour is often present just under the surface too – sometimes playful (My Neighbour’s Myna), sometimes wry (In Praise of Grey). The result is a sophisticated yet accessible collection that will leave memorable images in the mind long after after the book has been shut.

For more information and to order, see the Templar Poetry website.