As I’ve said before, I’m fortunate enough to belong to a group of extraordinarily accomplished novelists and prose writers who first met on the MA at Bath Spa University. I’m also very fortunate that down here in Devon there is such a vibrant and talented network of poets, many of them already published, who workshop together and read their work locally. Three of these fine poets, Sue Proffitt, Jenny Hamlett and Rebecca Gethin, have published collections recently and will be launching them at the beginning of May. Sue and Rebecca are both members of a workshopping group that I’m honoured to be part of.
Open After Dark, published by Oversteps Books, is Sue Proffitt’s debut collection, although she has been publishing poems in magazines for several years and has been placed in a number of competitions. She recently won the Teignmouth Poetry Festival competition with a beautiful poem entitled ‘The Woman of Whitehorse Hill’, about a Bronze Age burial that was discovered on Dartmoor in 2007. The poem is not in the collection but you can hear her reading it in this recording from Ian Beech’s programme Poetry Islanders on Soundart Radio (at just before 43 minutes).
Sue Proffitt lives on the coast and her deep engagement with the natural world shines through her poetry. The first section of the book, entitled The Gift, consists of poems about birds, animals and plants. These are not simply poems of observation: in them there is a feeling into the creature’s own experience, be it a butterfly: ‘Imagine,/the cold, the descending dark,/a banquet/but your mouth is locked’, a spawning salmon, a polar bear who swan to Iceland only to be shot on arrival: ‘Navigating instinct,/the dream of blood warm in your maw,/its metal current on your tongue/pulling you mile/ after mile’. In all these poems there is a profound sense of her relationship with the creatures she describes, whether a charge of wild boar, a jellyfish hanging in water or a kestrel close by: ‘that golden stare/fixes on me,/and as I rifle /through my life/it’s there —/neck-breath near.’ She has an instinct for ending a poem with a memorable image: the jellyfish is ‘a moon/in a wedding dress’; when the wild boar have passed ‘The quiet, following after,/ hovers outside me/ ringing like a storm glass’, watching crows ‘My whole world contracts/like a marble inside their eyes.’
The later sections of the book focus more on human relationship. In the second section, Learning to Swim, the poems encapsulate moments of vision and moments that carry a whole history. The Light is a beautifully understated poem in which light coming into a room at night reveals ‘…. there is someone else/in there with the child’. Other poems, clear-eyed and unsentimental, describe first menstruation and the loss that is menopause, hint at the ending of a relationship and – most memorably perhaps – recall her father in his coffin. This last poem, Visiting my Father, ends: ‘you are boxed/and wearing a pink dress/presented to me/like a sepulchral rose.’
The third section, My Mother’s Language, is perhaps the heart of Sue Proffitt’s collection. It is a series of poems about her mother’s long journey with dementia, with the poet as her close companion. These poems are deeply poignant, tender, loving and exploratory. They don’t pretend to know any answers but are willing to stay in the strangeness of the moment. In one of them, The Night Call, her mother is convinced that her children are lost in the night. The poet calls her mother to reassure her they are all right: ‘… and there, in the waiting dark,/a tiny child-voice grows out of my throat./Mummy, I say.’ Other poems evoke the bafflement, the frustration, the moments of lucidity, the helplessness of being confined in a nursing home where her mother sits, ‘a collapse of cardigan and cushions’, in the ‘warm, sweet, rancid seep/of cooked food, trapped air,/tang of urine, the stain/something cellular.’ In In the Sadness of Spring her mother’s disintegrating mind ‘…grasps for thought-holds/that crumble — flails in the terrored space —/pulls on the lifeline of my still remembered love’, before ‘appraising the land that’s gone to waste.’ Again the images are striking and memorable: ‘the clipped wings of her cardigan’, ‘the comfort-cud of repetition.’
The last section of the book, To Make a Path, returns to the natural world. The final poem, Gull Dawn, honours the gulls on the nearby coast. ‘Long after I have left/I will remember the gulls/carrying dawn to me.’ Other poems in this section are dark and powerful, especially Aisha, about a thirteen-year-old Somali girl who was stoned to death after having been raped. ‘The small bulb of your head/pokes above ground — /not to grow but to crack/like an egg broken open.’ The poem is angry and compassionate, but expressed with the delicacy and precision of imagery that characterises so many of the poems.
Apart from the imagery, what stands out for me in these poems is the musical flow of their language and their truthfulness to their subject, no matter how disturbing or heartbreaking it may be. As soon as I started reading them, I was completely under their spell. As Simon Williams, another highly accomplished Devon poet, says, ‘This is an exceptional collection to read and re-read.’