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March 30, 2010

'Powdered with peonies scattered like stars': Jane Draycott's poetry

Peonies watered

Jane Draycott’s previous collection The Night Tree (2004) was exceptional. At the time I celebrated her 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. I believe she has ground in common with Samuel Menashe. Like him, she has the wisdom to leave things out; she has a gift for the music and tone of a poem; and she won’t be rushed into betraying her vocation through lack of care or pursuit of fashion.

Jane Draycott's Over is an acutely musical book: Sean O’Brien was right to praise it recently for its ‘quietness’. It is quietly mesmerizing. Its sequence of twenty-six poems based on the International Phonetic Alphabet sounds at first like an Oulipean exercise. The music of Draycott’s language allows the poems to exceed and escape their framing, becoming something quite other than the sum and sound of its sections:

A match struck

in the house of ice.

Deep-sea flame fish

calling, the heart

harpooning. Something

in the dark is flashing.

Gold in the blood,

everything you know.

The fire on the little sandy beach.

The bear at the window.

No one escapes.


For me, the clinching moment of this admirable collection is the extract from Draycott’s translation of the medieval dream-vision Pearl. The language is marvellously modulated yet stirringly wild. Draycott has carried over into our tamer, tired world a strong, strange sense of how original, gorgeous and natural this old poem can be. I look forward to the complete translation if the extract is anything by which to judge it:

And I saw that the little hill where she fell

was a shaded place showered with spices:

pink gillyflower, ginger and purple gromwell

powdered with peonies scattered like stars.

But more than their loveliness to the eye,

the sweetest fragrance seemed to float

in the air there also. I know beyond doubt

that’s where she lay. My spotless pearl.

Over, Jane Draycott, Carcanet Press, pb., 66 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-903039-92-2

My thanks to Fiona Sampson of Poetry Review where this piece first appeared.

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