Poet and academic Jemma L. King’s début poetry collection, The Shape of a Forest, published by Parthian, has recently been long-listed for one of the most prestigious literary awards, The Dylan Thomas Prize 2013. This is well-deserved news for poetry, acknowledgement for a collection best described as well-pruned realism.
Similarly unadorned was King’s performance at Swansea’s Dylan Thomas Centre book launch, where she read slowly and carefully, as though creating each word for the first time; her preambles are never any less than prepossessing, through the voice of an inspired orator who understands how an audience listens.
The Shape of a Forest, a curious title, unpredictable upon the tongue, unfurls as we begin; the definite article of ‘the shape’ of a non-specific ‘forest’ provoking the idea of shape as a state, a standard; something we are only able to see in its entirety from a distance. ‘She looks out before looking in’, a line clipped from the poem on the first leaf, ‘Amelia Earhart’, perhaps resembles King’s writing technique, that of an explorer’s tendency to see the vast picture, the aerial view, before landing upon desired fieldwork.
This poem, just one of King’s striking winning entries at The Terry Hetherington Award 2011, is in fact written about an explorer; the pioneering female pilot who disappeared in 1937, and it clears up any inkling that there will be false portrayal anywhere for the sake of self-indulgent sound. ‘The damning thing was / the finger bone. Hers, they said’, is a line that pre-warns us of strict realism. Also knowing what is relative, King showers her verse with ions and atoms of the language of modern science and historical reference, luring us into the ‘igneous’ core of each poem.
The first line immediately acquaints us with the true Amelia: ‘For someone so accustomed to speed, / silence and stillness was something,’ writes the poet, mimicking conversational speech in a manner that means voices of these poems are never strangers to us, but something we happily believe in. King’s use of enjambment here also fits the narrative of broken aeroplanes and ambition; snapping the lines into well-placed pauses but leaving the substance intact. By the end, the first shoots of a theme are visible, the need to explore and then escape.
We meet the poet’s skill for sound too, in the ‘coughing notes’ of the next poem, ‘Water Music’, where we are ‘Unbound by physics’ in a wonderfully orchestrated piece that personifies the mercurial nature of sea, streams and estuaries:
pitches her lungs,
splits them on flint islands,
bursts on the gravity
of the fall’s edge
writes King, until what we are imagining is the powerful climax of a high-octave water-opera, followed by a shifted tempo, as the tone darkens to those of ‘percussive chords’ and we glide down the river to meet the ‘vault and side slap’ of salmon.
In keeping with the title, it is impossible not to notice the technical, shapely description to much of the poet’s work:
The robin was face down when I found him.
His wings, glacial triangles,
mocked his form,
strapped him down
to the newly found grip
of the pond.
This first stanza of ‘Winter for the Robin’ is almost Haiku in its momentary beauty; such a vivid snapshot that resonates as we read on, as we wonder whether the ‘naked face of glass’ is the reflection of the reality to break free from, or the air that ‘has wrung out each stray atom.’ One also realises the unusual level of appreciation for the poet’s bluntness. ‘The hardness of the hardest of seasons / is designed to kill’, writes King, with her usual sagaciousness.
Similarly formidable, ‘The Beginning’ is a fascinating poem told from the fabricated memory of an over-expressive newborn and, as always, King cajoles us with an opening line that begins where we are most interested, dispensing with unnecessary introductions:
The conception was a blur to me.
The first I knew was the
warm hand over the smutch
‘smutch’, yet another perfect word for the wriggling blur of ourselves at birth; the sky needing to be ‘opened right up’ for a being unwilling to be contained any longer. The poet’s skill here and throughout is to use language sparingly, yet tugging at every chord.
If we follow King’s inward gaze, there are heart-wrenching narrative poems such as ‘Hegarty’, about an ‘unwanted’, ‘loudmouthed’, lost dog, ‘Walls’, a grim reality of rape and domestic secrecy, describing ‘Some sorry attempt at / something home shaped’. And then a blatant poem called ‘Sex’, far from romanticised and brought back to basics of the act itself, the manner of its beginning in contemporary society and then its consequences:
One year later,
no man in no room
wants to admit
that he was that one guy,
for one night,
that split her and
buried something inside.
More politically-inclined are poems such as ‘Nuclear’, based on the belief of the conjugal family central to stability in modern society. ‘Here all of us are / crackling anxious / to love’ because we have been told we are ‘supposed to’; partially ignorant to ‘The thighs’ /wax and wane’ and the changing nature of human beings.
In a true acknowledgement of nature, however, ‘Japan’ is an emotive poem with a hypnotic refrain ‘From the classroom’, ‘From the street, ‘From the cities, ‘From the people’ as the many perspectives affected by the 2011 earthquake. Above all, it enforces the unease between natural disasters and the lives we attempt to build within their inevitable existence.
Jemma L. King’s The Shape of a Forest recycles these events, striking through pleasant frameworks so that, as poetry should, it begs us to question the ever-changing state of the world we share with the rest of nature. As her poem ‘Astronomy’ says, we are
trapped in all this space
And so not able to escape but able to shape the place in which we belong.