Jane Spiro’s collection is very accessible but far from lightweight. The book has a carefully considered shape and form, making it much more than just a gathering up of recent poems. The structure is indicated by the headings of the four sections: ‘where we start‘, ‘summer’s lease‘, ‘swimming deeper‘ and ‘a white in us‘. The poems consistently link human life to the elements of nature as the book voyages through the seasons, lives and life, celebrating them but at the same time recognising their fragility.
I was most engaged by the first section, about birth and childhood, and the last, which treats aging and death. The collection opens with an egg, an image of birth, but is at the same time a description of the traditional Ukrainian practice of egg-painting so that it unites the ideas of beginnings with nature and culture:
and the egg emerges
jewel-bright, its turtle-back
an astonishment of colour
like the shock of birth.
Intriguing in this poem, as in some of the others, is the use of the pronoun ‘you’; here, it is difficult to tell if this is a generalised, instructional ‘you’ –’pencil in the patterns you desire’ or a known, personal ‘you’ who is a skilled practitioner in this tradition. The poem gains resonance if we believe that the writer is addressing someone who she has watched at work.
There are other poems about children, the poet’s own perhaps, one about a Turkish child, ‘Divided City’ where the wall is the physical division of the city but also the barrier between the old language and the new language of English which the child has to cross. The poet ‘became his words: hello –goodbye/playtime dinner time/time for home’. While the child struggles to retain his old identity ‘I am Turkish’ the poet wants him to embrace the new, ‘I, the other side,/ waving, asking him to leap.’ Spiro’s preoccupation with language and the links between language and identity surface here, as might be expected in someone whose own heritage includes the forcible loss of language and home which is reflected more directly in two poems about her father’s childhood in Warsaw, most powerfully in the image of the boy who has an unexpected day off school:
One day, not knowing why,
you were locked out of school,
found another thing to do –
daytime cinema, delicious truancy,
sitting in the dark in the back row
beside a satchel and a Polish grammar.
The date of the poem, Warsaw, 1938, and the Polish grammar say it all.
Another childhood poem is apparently addressed to a child, perhaps her own son, and its rather awkward, tricksy approach recognises the difficulty of writing poems to, for or about people when they have not asked you to. This always seems particularly problematic when one is writing about one’s own family, especially children. The writer begins “I promised you/there would be/ no more poems/about you” but goes on to describe poems as “silly shapes/made by grown-ups” which seems on the face of it like a failure of nerve. The poet goes on to describe all the things a poem does not do in terms of the kind of things the child presumably does or enjoys, “chocolate twizzlers”. However, the collection of items seems demeaning both to the child and to poetry and there is a rare uncertainty of tone in this poem where a ‘you’ is directly addressed, although not necessarily with his consent. More assured is a poem slightly earlier in the collection, ‘Learning to be Four’ where third person is used as the poem marvels at the child without attempting to invade his space: ‘All this in not five years/in which time we have grown hardly at all/forgetting how much can come from nothing,/and how soon.’
The section ‘summer’s lease’ signals a move towards adult experience, with the first two poems perhaps marking the sorts of transitions physically experienced as house moves. Both poems are concerned with the process of moving on through life while at the same time looking back. Both put stress on the importance of memory while acknowledging its inadequacy. The poem ‘Budapest balcony’ is a brilliant conceit; the poet describes the balcony as an eavesdropper on the politics of Hungary and life in the city of Budapest, poking ‘its iron ear out into the street.’ In some of the other poems, I come up once more against the issue of the second-person pronoun. In ‘The shutter maker’, a beautiful poem, which could be a companion piece to ‘Painting Eggs’, the shutter maker and his craft are described in third person until the end of the poem, when the writer uses ‘you’, in what seems to be both a tribute and thanks:
This measured day, striped now
with light, the musk of warm wood,
is your work of art, last man of your craft,
your signature is here, and we will remember.
Less explicable, is the use of ‘you’ in ‘Drought’. The poem describes the effects of the sun and drought. In the first two stanzas, the sun is described as ‘it’ but in the third it becomes ‘you’, ‘You have occupied the land’ and is increasingly personified, until at the end of the poem it has become ‘a furious god’. Another slightly strange use of ‘you’ comes in the last poem in this section, where it might or might not relate to ‘butterflies’ as the poem moves through an increasingly diffuse range of ways of being, ‘the different ways/it is possible to be alive.’
In Section Three, ‘swimming deeper’, the poet intensifies the search for meaning, and it is here that the links between human and elemental are strongest. There are poems of earth, air and water though perhaps fire has been left behind in the previous section. From ‘Turbulence’, a fear of flying poem, where the poet is at the mercy of air to ‘Onsen’ and ‘On Falling into the River Thames’ where she is immersed in water to the beautiful solidity of stone in ‘Dartmoor Standing Stones’ and wood in ‘My Wooden Men’, Spiro explores the relationship between human and other forms of existence. In ‘Meeting the Green Man’ she presents an encounter with earth at its most ancient, its most human and its most other:
Are you evil giant or trapped prophet,
mindful god or beheaded knight,
bursting from stone or petrified from flesh,
written in stone or the face-in-my-mind?
These lines also confront the blur between subjective and objective, our desire to interpret and impose shape on nature and others which robs them of their separate identities and voices. In this poem, the writer is searching for another who can teach or enlighten her, while recognising that the shape of that other is one she has herself constructed:
Stay awhile, he says.
Stay awhile and hear me.
Stay awhile and hear what I have to say –
Again, I am worried by the use of pronouns and I do not think that this concern is superficial. The poem begins with ‘you’ used impersonally as if the writer were guiding the reader towards a meeting with the Green Man: ‘At first he leads your eye down’, ‘and then you see him’. However, in the fourth and penultimate stanza quoted above, the ‘you’ changes its identity as the poet directly confronts this embodiment of otherness by addressing him as ‘you’. This must be uttered by the first person ‘I’ who makes only a very oblique appearance in the phrase ‘face-in-my-mind’. In the last two lines, ‘he’ is given a reply and allowed to use the first person ‘hear me’, ‘hear what I have to say.’ In a sense, the fluidity of the pronouns emphasizes the utter subjectivity of the poem and deprives the other of his separateness. The last poem in this section, where the use of pronouns is much more straightforward, also addresses links between self and other, and the barriers created by identity, whether individual or existential and ends questioningly and appropriately among the elements:
from holding a stone
to holding a question about space –
how it has evolved to be this.
‘a white in us’ is the fourth and final section of this volume. It deals with illness and endings but also with hope and in a satisfying way brings us back to the poet’s father, first met in childhood, now in age. ‘These last days’, which I assume to be about him, is powerful and moving in its detail and its understatement and the relationships between the ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’ are clear and sustaining. The ‘white in us’ which gives the section its title appears in ‘Snowscape’ and seems to represent a state of quietness, ‘a first place’ which precedes individuation but which is also a last place of surrender and acceptance.
One of the pleasures of this collection is the sureness of the poet’s ear; the line endings are secure and the choices of language are precise both in meaning and sound. Jane Spiro’s book is humane and positive, always open to possibility as presented in the title poem with its refusal of initiating capital letters or finalising full stops. There is always a threshold, always a way forward:
is a gateway
to a corridor of red pillars winding into the woods disappearing to a
is a gateway