Poppies bring to mind remembrance, so ‘Three Glances at a Field of Poppies’ is a fitting way to open this collection on recollections and grief. The poem has an irksome title and resorts to the use of glyphs to separate the ‘glances’, an intrusion especially considering each stanza is a mere three lings long, but illustrates well Deryn Rees-Jones’ determination to explore, in her personal case feelings and meaning, as the reader gets closer to the poppies with each glance. The poem doesn’t end with a poem’s journey from red to black, colour to darkness, but vice versa. No matter how maudlin these poems get, the journey ends not with death but flourishing life.
In ‘A Scattering,’ Deryn Rees-Jones addresses, presumably, her late husband: ‘I am standing by the waters where we’ve let you rest’. Describing the scattering of a loved one’s ashes can hardly be cause to accuse the poet of relying too heavily on the same source, but other poems which may or may not have any connection with her late husband’s death (such as the opening poem, which was commissioned by the National Wildflower Centre), seem to carry the same air of grief. In ‘Meteor’, this feeling of grief that is so hard to shake gives the poem a powerful intensity:
And this is how everything vanishes,
how everything that vanishes begins,
the hinged moment looking forwards and back.
Just as in ‘Persephone’, the poem which follows ‘Meteor’, where ‘outside turns inner, the fall towards light’, we get the sense of impending doom, of bad news being given, a revelation, an occurrence or revealing which cannot be undone, which the narrator knows instantly will shake the foundations of her life.
Then the meteor brought us to our feet:
a stripped atom, trapping electrons
to excite the darkness with its violet light.
I remember how it disturbed the heavens,
burned against the air to leave no trace.
Though to have enough power to ‘excite the darkness with its violet light’ it could be good news, such as pregnancy, or a mixture of the exciting and the unknown, mirroring ‘Three Glances at a Field of Poppies’ by twisting a dark moment until it becomes, or has the potential to become, something positive.
Deryn Rees-Jones was born in Liverpool. She spent parts of her childhood in Eglwysbach but Burying the Wren (named after an Irish custom) evinces only a small, insignificant shadow of Welsh influence. Her fifth poetry collection (fourth full collection), Burying the Wren is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and has been short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. Her husband, Michael Murphy, died in 2009 and this book, as well as being dedicated to him, honours him throughout, and shows Deryn Rees-Jones having to rely on strength she didn’t seem to think possible.
When a child dies, the bereaved parents can pull apart rather than pull together, but when one of the parents die the remaining adult can cling to their child, or children, with all their might. This is the image Deryn Rees-Jones leaves the reader with at times, comparing the love between a mother and daughter to ‘stars made into snow, and vice versa.’ Although the start of ‘The Fetch’ implies her love and fascination for her child was always going to be this strong (‘when she came, her eyes shielded against the light,/it was as if we’d always known she would’), Daughter II reads as a reaction to a catastrophe:
The black space
that creates the universe, would
if it could, suck everything in?
I hardly dare look, the night
losing its face to the senses
It speaks of fear, uncertainty, that the world is too huge and unpredictable for us to walk in safely. Like those who have fallen down the stairs in the past will now always grip the banister before taking the first step, Rees-Jones seems to hold on to her daughter as if fearing what might happen, if not to her daughter then to herself. Because now there is:
no one to answer,
or to answer to. Only
an unlearned joy when you wake
which is ours: your breath on my skin
enough to stop a heart,
If the poems on grief fail to reach the height of contemplation and insight that Penelope Shuttle recently reached, the reason might just be that the words spent on this topic do not match up in volume. Despite the inescapable vapour of misery breathing out of these pages, along with it come snatches of comedy and joy and a great deal of unrelated topics. Some of these poems link up better with the central theme than others, without becoming monotonous. ‘Shaved Fennel with Blood Oranges, Pomegranate, Pecorino’ (i.m. Thom Gunn), although an obituary of sorts, with a show-off’s title, whets our appetite with its smells of fruit and cheese, and brings in a new life, as if to replace the one which has come to an end. The conclusion, when connected to the food list mentioned earlier in the poem, reads like a description of a food craving during pregnancy:
It is food to take the winter out of all of us,
calling us as even now,
with its muscular flexing in foetal turns
I call my own child on.
In ‘Slugs’ we are invaded by immediately recognisable stomach-churning night visits. An intriguing start trails off into a mediocre middle section but the poem, like the slugs, becomes a force by the finale, until it’s not so much like receiving a visit but, rather, a visitation. Deryn Rees-Jones’s gift of seeing beyond is not contained to people and philosophy but is conjured up too in her contemplation of animal life and food. Although the collection has its fair share of poems that should have been buried with the wren (but what collection doesn’t?), and might have benefited with more light-hearted moments, the reader can still relish ingenious images such as is contained in the first two couplets of ‘Truffles’:
The Umbrian black truffle,
a delicacy in these mulish towns,
was born, or so the Romans had it,
when lightning struck the earth,
Mystique in a brighter coat. Magic.