Thomas Tyrrell reviews Katherine Stansfield’s second collection, We Could Be Anywhere By Now (Seren).
Back in the eighteenth century, before poetry collections had proper titles or handsome art deco covers, new poets would simply release volumes called Poems on Various Occasions. It’s a title that would still suit many collections of this most occasional of arts. Poems come prompted by the chance meeting, the word overheard, the workshop, the commission, and perhaps, if we are lucky, the muse. We can try corralling them by theme or subject, but the results are often mixed: the least successful part of We Could Be Anywhere By Now is its division of poems into five sections, none of which has a very clear rationale. It serves for a collection of amusing epigraphs, but these could have been whittled down without losing anything from the poems themselves.
What are Katherine Stansfield’s occasions? Welsh lessons. Train journeys (a lot of these—she’s evidently a poet not plagued by travel sickness). Rebellions against university bureaucracy. Rewatching Grease. Gift shop conversations. Fear of flying. Visiting Tim Peake’s Capsule. Being asked to write the dreaded wedding poem. Italian lessons. A fire at the National Library of Wales. Yulia Skripal and the Salisbury poisonings. To read her is to be submerged in her experiences, to be offered a portal into someone else’s sensibility. But, as with all poetry, there are tricks and traps along the way.
‘Misdirection’ is a wittily gory poem with a self-aware conceit that writing poetry is a form of self-cannabalism: ‘and when I say feed on myself / I mean this isn’t a metaphor for confessionalism’. That’s in itself a misdirection, since there’s little else in the collection to justify this grand guignol description. More typical is the celebration of the poet as eavesdropper, listening as two women called Susan prattle on the train:
they exclaim at the length
of the tunnel they’re in, wonder,
one Susan to another,
is this a mountain
we’re going under?
while miles above, the Severn
goes on being wide
and Susans go on
talking on trains
are quiet. Keep writing.
Language is another preoccupation. A compulsive polyglot, Stansfield is uneasy at being anywhere without committing to the local language. ‘Cornish / Welsh / space’, spanning the two Celtic tongues, shows Stansfield’s gift for perfect structure, and provides a rare moment of confidence and homecoming.
and though the stones
are not the same and neither are the birds
the sea’s the sea both here and there
and I have found inside them, home,
inside these sounds, inside them: home.
The title, We Could Be Anywhere By Now, is another misdirect, or at the least in an ironic register. These are not alienated, globalist poems. They could not be written anywhere. They are firmly anchored in the places Stansfield knows, in the struggle to acquire language, to belong, in the people she has met and overheard, in the various occasions of their inspiration.
We Could Be Anywhere By Now by Katherine Stansfield is available now from Seren.