Peter Gaskell delves into Wild Persistence, the latest poetry collection from Katrina Naomi. Available now from Seren Books.
Wild Persistence is Katrina Naomi’s first collection of poems since moving from London to Penzance. Engagingly assertive and reflective in equal measure, several poems are set in the Cornish landscape as she observes and comments on diverse themes through the lens of her distinctly personal perspective.
On love and relationships, some poems seem cathartically personal, others showing detachment as if they are observations of other people’s behaviour and experience. The most obviously autobiographical ‘Ghazal for Tim’ cleverly narrates the course of their relationship with the repeating forever completing each couplet with a different significance. Love is well-described for the effects of its physicality and with much reference to the effect of travelling and distance; psychologically too, as in contemplating the suitability of suitors: ‘I prefer the lovely prison of my own making..choose to listen to the colour of a voice…not how they choose to show themselves’, suggesting the poet is not one for subscribing to dating sites. Those poems which lead somewhere unexpected are satisfying. After a trip across the county for a massage, the finely-crafted ‘The Gift’ resolves with a pleasing result for both teller and reader.
‘Holidayish’ is another poem that goes somewhere you don’t expect. It is one of several about the mental state that can take you while waiting for someone dear to endure a hospital operation and recover. ‘My Sister and the Heavy Magic’, curiously enjambed into triplets, is cogently written from the perspective of a cancer lodged in the breast and hoping for travel as if on holiday throughout the rest of her body.
Katrina Naomi certainly isn’t shy of confronting life’s darker aspects, of surviving misfortune and trauma. There are poems about rape, abortion, adultery all with an unusual take or a remarkable last line, with a twist or to leave you pondering the meaning. A rape victim finally commenting on the reactions of observers: ‘You might just have asked how I was’, then in ‘The Reveal’, the effect of somebody she knows well showing her scars after mastectomy: ‘this celebration of damage as if passing on trauma could somehow lessen hers’.
Another referencing scars is ‘Three Horses’ about a painting perhaps though I wasn’t sure, it being one of a few poems where I found meaning hard to derive; also ‘Elemental’ a close tight portrayal of ordinary things where I wasn’t sure of the point the narrator was to aiming to get across. Where Katrina Naomi is successful in this, it is often by reference to colour. She can’t stay at university because the buildings are too grey, a colour scorned in the first poem in the collection for its safety, its ambience. It should be split to ‘spark a choice of dark or light’, suggesting a preference for danger. This first poem makes a strong statement with a reference to gunsmoke, while the last poem in the collection called ‘The Guns’ is about a man who wants to show her the pistol he unwraps from a fluffy duster; her reaction is less fear than to muse on why he ‘focused on the contrast between yellow and black; how he’d chosen danger colours’ and why it is not in a woman’s nature to have emotional attachment to a gun in the same way as such a man. For light relief, she likes to follow this one at poetry readings with ‘Boasting Sonnet’ that concludes with the couplet:
‘Wish you could see my scything and lindyhop. I’d say much more but sonnets make you stop”.
Colour too has association with identity and consciousness. In ‘The Beach Couldn’t Be Found’, where the beach didn’t know it was a beach, ‘The sea was no colour’. Then after ‘The Table My Father Made’ exposing as false the claims of her father who left home when she was a child, ‘All Those Years’ when after his death a photo is discovered, it is tellingly in ‘a satin frame whose colour was no longer true’.
Whiteness has particular significance. ‘Hello Wilhemina’ celebrates the ‘colours of push..chanting their own revolution..there is too much white in our lives’, then ‘Spared’ peppered with images that are white portraying marriage as an unwelcome bird, and ‘Not Really About Snow’ about a train journey from Paddington with the curious line about her carriage ‘quiet as snow falling upwards’. A favourite has to be the ‘Poem In Which She Wears Her Favourite Wedding Dress which is a marriage of sea and birds’, another where title becomes first line, where white is only one of several colours linked to what is in the land and seascape. Wild Persistence has the bonus of this translated into Cornish also.
The other translations are from the Spanish by Mexican poet Yohanna Jaramillo. Both poems address their issues on a cosmic scale that is breathtaking but sometimes also mystifying in meaning and intent, so a note to say what inspired these to be included in Wild Persistence would have been useful. ‘Open Letter’ starts as a dedication to a lover, then reads as a series of non-sequiturs related to the spinning behaviour of sub-atomic particles, some intriguing such as ‘I know that the only thing that doesn’t grow with heat and water is time, that’s why the sun is ecstatic’. Puzzling over this, I was wondering if this line might link to another poem on the big themes of the universe and mortality, ‘The Sun And Me’ where the poet considers her stage in life as parallel with the sun doomed to run out of hydrogen, ‘not far from me on the periodic table’; a powerful and cleverly-wrought poem.
Referred to in another poem ‘Suitors’, Emily Dickinson is often cited as a poet influenced by religious sensibilities, if not doctrine. Religion in Katrina Naomi’s poetry is directly referenced in the title ‘How Religion Works’. With its ‘haze of purple’ colour association, religion almost has her kissing the crucified foot in a foreign Catholic church but the rationalism she implies in ‘Dualism: A Manifesto’ or the shocking last lines about a nihilistic and mean-spirited God in ‘This Isn’t A Yellow Cake’ won’t let her be seduced even by the power of vivid colour. Her sense of the sacred is rather to be found in ’The Snug’ where in the second-person she reveres a drinking parlour for its character as a confessional to whom she can tell her secrets with impunity.
Impressed with the extent of her work as a poet, as mentor for aspirants also, it surprised me to discover Katrina Naomi established herself as a poet really by accident. When a piece of her writing submitted for publication was judged favourably for its poetic qualities, her reaction was surprise as she had hitherto disavowed poetry as elitist. Since revising that view, she has come to prominence deservedly and is now tilting her talents at other languages also.
In Wild Persistence, Katrina Naomi shows wide versatility. She is comfortable addressing what delights and appeals in nature, what appals in human behaviour, the significance of private events and public celebration days, the minutiae of objects that raise larger or unexpected questions. She is prepared to stretch and mould the form for it to present her personal take on the themes that attract her probing mind and stir her feelings. By her own account, she will play around with a first draft to see how she can surprise herself and when deciding on a poem’s structure and layout on the page is delightfully open to the idea of letting the poem tell her what it wants to look like. I look forward to her next body of work which I expect to cover a further array of topics and more unanticipated cultural references. This collection includes the first of her poems to be published in Cornish, one of her finest, and will surely encourage the vitality of that language into perpetuity.
Peter Gaskell also contributes to the Atlanta Review where he is published in their current edition featuring poets from Cornwall and Wales.