Published by Seren Books (www.serenbooks.com)
Winner of the 2018 Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition.
Jane Lovell’s latest pamphlet has an elegiac quality. She looks at a past studded with cruelty and sadness, documenting Man’s inhumanity and lack of care for their fellow creatures. Her words are carefully chosen, creating spare, clear and highly visual images of the scenes she describes and the people and animals she portrays, leading our imaginations to engage with a past made vivid and real.
From the outset, Lovell asks us to reflect on Man’s place in the universe. In The Song of the Vogelherd Horse she takes us back to the creation of a beautiful artefact from 30,000 years ago. She imagines the early men who:
[…] smoothed my lissome back
that carried me against her skin;
another who buried me in soil,
em>stamped it down.
and reflecting on the passing centuries observes:
The gilding sun calls skies and hillsides
to my mind’s dark eye,
my spirit bones.
I was here before your god.
Cherish my broken form.
A similar preoccupation runs through Limousin, Lascaux which focuses on the finds at the famous French cave, now closed to the public to protect its 17000 year old paintings. Lovell celebrates their creation:
Of charcoal, and cinnamon ochre,
umber burnt and blown through bone or reed,
they balance on mist, unwilling to tear the ghost-silk.
Lovell brings the vitality of the paintings to life:
Coats steam, tails flick, tongues lunge;
a stone sky rests on curled spears of ash, horns
of black manganese.
She finishes the poem with the irony that the beauty of the cave and its wonders attracted the visitors who would have marked its destruction:
We breathe and they may disappear.
Lovell examines a more recent loss to the animal world in Godolphin’s Stallion, the famous Arabian stud horse that was one of the founders of the modern thoroughbred. The horse is buried on the site of his stables near Cambridge. Lovell writes of:
[…] the sleeping giant, bones white as hazel,
Godolphin’s stallion shifts and twists
with the turning of the Earth […]
She pictures the ghost of the horse:
Late June, early mornings, some say,
they flinch at the thundering hooves, the salt
and stench of champed grass as the stallion passes,
eyes wild with triumph.
Lovell also focuses on the little told stories of less well-known people from history. The Last Leap of Sam Patch chronicles the sad or possibly foolhardy end of the man known as The Jersey Jumper who found fame after jumping into the Niagara River at the falls. Patch jumped from a variety of buildings, bridges and platforms, and earning money from the audiences who gathered to watch his exploits. His jump at the Niagara Falls was watched by an audience of 10,000. His final jump, on Friday, November 13th 1829 was a 125 feet jump into the Genosee River with his pet bear. The jump went badly wrong, with Patch failing to make his usual feet first entry. Some bystanders suggested he may have had a little too much to drink. He never surfaced, and his body wasn’t found until the following spring when the frozen river thawed. He was 22. Lovell describes the leap:
He remembers, briefly, plummeting,
tilting slowly like a tree through stinging spray
to land amazed,
the last breath slammed from his lungs […]
Sam is dragged down river:
[…] hidden underwater
from the still-expectant crowd stamping at the frost,
the bitter light, he dreams of breathing.
Algae quietly invades his brain, bloom inside his bones.
The bear meets a similar fate:
Rats tumble past, bloated gourds of fur and cunning,
bellies full of bear-meat,
carrying in their eye-gleam the flash of the great canines
as the head lifted, rolled, then sank upon the flooded chest.
Lovell takes us through the daredevil madness of Sam Patch, and creates a vivid picture of what it must be like to drown in a bitterly cold river, describing how:
Winter stills the edge of the Genosee,
permeates his clothes, remaining skin, distending
every cavity, bursting every organ and capilliary.
He stares out through the long, cold water, eyes of a pike.
Lovell comments that Sam Patch’s epitaph reads:
“Here lies Sam Patch, the Yankee leaper
brave and mad and drowned.”
But the bear:
[…] snarled in his chain, was soon forgotten;
his carcass, bitten white as willow, never found.
Salt worker, Sečovlje remembers the generations of salt workers who have harvested salt from the lagoons in Slovenia for a millennium. Lovell puts us alongside a salt worker from the past, working the lagoons by hand. She creates a vivid image of the landscape:
………………………………[…] a land
brimming sea and salt blooms
above carpets of petola,
quiet pans of algae, gypsum, clay
where egrets pick their way
through cubes of sky.
Lovell describes the timeless continuum of salt production through generations of workers:
He does not move.
A rime of salt blisters his lips,
gathers in his desiccated bones.
Eight centuries of shift and hiss;
he closes his eyes,
balances against the light.
Tallow picks up the sense of historic industry with a vivid imagining of the soap making process from the rendering of fallen cattle to the mixing of tallow with the corrosive lye to produce tablets of soap.The poem opens with the boiling of a cow’s carcass:
Her eyes bleach the colour
of milk, head coming up blind
Lovell goes on to describe the process: cooling the tallow, adding beeswax and lye:
stand back from its boiling and hissing,
do not breathe until it stills.
The end of the poem celebrates the selection of the animal chosen for rendering as a sacrifice:
It is light tonight, cloudless.
We carry her flesh to fire, break bread,
sing her name.
Tomorrow the women will roast the bones,
use the crushed chalk to make buttons
She was our chosen one, our beauty.
This is an exquisite collection of poems. Lovell brings the past to our attention with a vivid clarity. Every word is chosen with care, in this highly polished award-winning pamphlet.
Rennie Halstead has been writing since he was eleven. He writes reviews, poetry, flash fiction and short stories.