March 07, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 8: Jane Draycott

Thaw 1

Poetry persuades by the precision of its language, and this necessary exactness is carefully and coldly won over years of drafting and redrafting. Jane Draycott’s first collection, Prince Rupert’s Drop, was well-received and rightly so. Her work had a patient intelligence of practice, and concision of address, not only in every poem in that book but in the very philosophy of perception informing her poetics. Her collection set a lofty point from which to advance. Happily for her growing number of readers The Night Tree goes even further in its elegance and imaginative force.

She succeeds because, in the end, it’s completely down to her confidence: of a writerly coolness coupled with a sense of a workable, completely engaged aesthetic. The price of precision can be perfectionism, an attitude that can result in freezing before the Janeheadlights of your own expectations. At this point in a poet’s vocation, the resilience of the personality has a great say in whether artistic progress is made or not. In short, you either freeze or thaw. Everything experienced so far, everything written and read decides that outcome. It is a learned process, building up to the moment, and the consequence is ultimately decisive and life-changing. It can precipitate artistic crisis: poetic careers can fall apart, the language becoming clinical or unravelled and worn-out. All their tricks show, and show the poet up. Thaw 2

Not so for Jane Draycott. _The Night Tree _is a calculated, amazing thaw, made up from icy, prickly detail. Her attention to detail has paid off hugely; and she knows the price of it. One example, from the sequence ‘Tideway’ (a series of meditations on the Thames) is the short poem ‘It begins as with razors’, the lift-off point for which is that lightermen on the river once bought their pipes pre-packed, then threw them overboard. Here it is in full:

It begins as with razors or lighters,
its sharpness or fire akin to a ship
that is passing, a fragment or sample
of something much bigger and further away
such as fathomless caverns of silver,
whole acres of indigo, saffron or hemp
or hillside on hillside of spices or tea
laid out like a rug to lie down on or sleep.
By capping the bowl like the door
to a furnace some made it last longer,
run cooler for breathing in deeper
its skyfuls of clouds, so that burdens
grown lighter could rise in the water
like palaces turning to smoke,
for a pipe once alight is a dream
which is now or is never and ends
like a pile of disposable bones
washed up on the foreshore
where in the same place the body
of a river ran just hours before.

What Draycott manages in two sentences contains a world. It isn’t just the concise audacity of the imagery created here that is persuasive (‘sharpness of fire akin to a ship that is passing’; ‘capping the bowl like the door to a furnace‘), it’s also her adroit control of language within the determined rhythmic clarity of what’s almost a sea-shanty form (‘a pipe once alight is a dream / which is now or is never and ends / like a pile of disposable bones‘). It is very hard to write this simply, nor is it simple to set so many internal rhymes in place, their gears interlocking almost soundlessly, without making the poem clank as wildly as a cartoon grandfather clock. Draycott’s confidence secures the registers and makes a fine, clear lyric. Moreover she makes significance out of insignificance. Say it out loud; you’ll want to sing it in time. Time’s the theme.

Like the best poets at peak of confidence, Draycott can also be playful. By this stage she’s earned your trust to be so. The way she plays however is by making strange, such as in the poem ‘How he knew he was turning to glass’, an artful examination of the proofs of that transformation:

By the playing like wind in his hair of exhalations
from the distant leper colony.
By the images of himself repeated in the candelabras
of his erections . . .

Or she can play on expectations by taking something familiar, setting it in another unrelated familiar, and seeing what emerges from that forced marriage. I enjoy any ceremony in which literature proposes to science. The children of such a coupling usually lack any dread of reason (while some poets fly the room at the smell of it). Jane Draycott plainly enjoys this observance too, especially in a cunning poem in which Sherlock Holmes receives a Fellowship from the Royal Society of Chemistry:

He appears for a moment to fade, lost
in the fog which encircles his head.
The microphone leans towards him
like a question shouted into the wind
Who are you waiting for on such
a freezing night? Areas of his brain
are needles of fire, clear signals across
open ground. The carpet rolls its red road
out across centuries of snow.
And what is it you fear so greatly?
Disembodied mind swirls in free-fall
beyond the window pane, frost calculates
its way across the floor. As you value
your reason, keep away from the moor.

As you value your reason, then you probably value good poetry. I’ve waited some time to read something this intelligent, this sensuous and this crystalline. In fact The Night Tree is the finest collection I’ve read this year. What are you waiting for?

Thanks to the Guardian where a version of this entry appeared.

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