That Feverfew, the sixth and latest poetry collection from Anna Saunders, is laced with quality – at times luxury – is easily evidenced. What is more difficult to explain, though ironically it may be inherent in its stylish packaging, is the exquisite economy and value to be found in this publication.
In large part this may be attributable to the presence of forty one poems within a physical book-space of proportions which seem incapable of holding such an amount of treasure. Yet there is nothing cramped or cheap about its presentation. I guess the publisher Indigo Dreams must be due credit for the practical side of this, the design and typesetting, as indeed must the poet for composing poems which fit so well to the page.
Of greater importance, however, is the discovery that this collection has a literary and sensory quality which (like the divine accused characterised in one of the collected poems, The Prosecution Builds up a Case Against Jupiter) takes various forms. Some clues may be found in the cold and hot of the striking cover design; the proof is found in the assured crafting of words found within the covers.
Mythical references inhabit a number of the poems. Some of the named characters and creatures from Greek and Roman mythology will be familiar to non-scholarly readers, some not. Where I was unsure about the myths associated with a featured character I found it intriguing to read the poem first of all without research and enjoy it for its sounds and feel and discernible purpose; enjoy it purely as a poem. The nature of the myth would sometimes be revealed in a general way by this exercise, subsequent googling being largely confirmatory. In other cases, discovering the mythological root was an essential key.
In all those referring to myth the poet’s skill and imagination re-works the ancient to make it relevant to the modern reader, and to the contemporary message the poem is meant to convey.
As well as those which reference mythology there are works here which use the characteristics of wild creatures to tell the stories of humans, those which feature the nakedness of humans themselves, and those which feature spirits who have thrown off the flesh which formerly clothed them.
It is important to point out that, while this is a collection with serious intent making full use of grown-up literary techniques and devices, it possesses humanity, occasionally shows vulnerability and employs humour too (often in the guise of satire and/or the entertaining titles of certain poems).
Whether your mood calls out for reflections of love, lust, loss or consideration of abuse of power and animalistic instincts, there is something here for you. I have found the collection pleasing, rewarding, surprising and affecting to read and re-read.
Given the space I permit myself for Blog reviews there is not room to give examples of the many poems in Feverfew that touch or tickle my intellect, anima or shadow. So, as a discipline I have decided to look briefly at just four, hopefully providing a soupçon of the flavours of the collection.
What I Learnt from the Owl, the first poem in Feverfew, has something of Emily Dickinson in it. Its unflinching true depiction of an owl as bird of prey sets the reader up for some of the cold reality-checking which will emerge in subsequent poems and is also the perfect appetiser for the collection’s second poem – the first one I wish to discuss here – Time after Time the Same Bird is Born from the Flame.
In this piece, the phoenix of Greek mythology is transformed for the modern world. No longer is it the positive motif, eagerly adopted over time to represent renewal and in due course Christian resurrection. Anna Saunders’ phoenix is viewed as an unwelcome regeneration. The opening lines tell us that:-
Here it comes, … /a feathered doppelgänger of the last,/ an identical gold-eyed genesis/scattering a surplus of silver plate from his claws.
He is introduced as a privileged creature, a royal bird which feasts on incense, whereas we pick at seeds and stringy meat.
The ‘we’, presumably the ordinary folk, wonder How did he earn the spokes of sun that ascend from his head…?
We ache for change, yet each creature that rules the court/is a rooster’s brother with jaundiced eyes.
Not even death will bring an end to this.
It quickly becomes clear that this poem, which on its surface references the exotic re-generating bird of myth, in its gut speaks of inequality and the apparent impossibility of bringing about necessary change in the cycle, the system.
How wrong we are to think that fire/can cauterise corruption, it continues. That could hardly be more plainly expressed, especially when followed by the line which gives the poem its title, Time after time the same bird is born from the flame.
A number of Ms Saunders’ poems deal with love and relationships, some tinged with eroticism, others with various difficult aspects and issues; each one is worth the reading and imbibing. For my second arbitrary choice I have selected one of the less obvious depictions of a controlling relationship, I come back as a Horse.
Ostensibly, it features a horse (probably a gentle mare) considering how it is treated by its human master and begins with what appears to be a sad acceptance that true freedom is no longer an option: –
My owner leads me in from the cold. /His heating makes my flanks steam, my breath plume and cloud. He shouts/as my skittering hooves crescent mark his shiny floor.
Next, we discover the extent of the horse’s value to the owner: –
He has pictures of the races all over his wall/strained mares taking jumps/ or being brushed down savagely/until their rumps blaze like precious stones. The mares, it seems, are there to win trophies, or be trophies, and the next stanza tells us of further restrictions of liberty –
We have to wear our harnesses all night./It is compulsory and our necks burn.
The narrator horse speaks disparagingly of humans choosing inappropriate names. I am not mine, she says unhappy with her naming, before going on to describe in a similarly sanguine voice the more shocking truth of what happens to horses who do not match expectations: –
A young one never came back. If your legs buckle,/if your back is too weak, there’s a bullet for you.
The implication of controlling threat (and a point where a familiar association may be drawn with hair-pulling abuse and assault) continues in the next two lines –
I love my mane, even when he winds it round his hand/to make a boxing glove.
Finally, following a statement of preference for the freedom of the fresh air, the poem concludes with the subtle but poignant –
Once, a child passed me, said I had kind eyes,/felt pity for me.
The third poem I wish to feature, Floundering, is one of exceptional tenderness, and admirable skill.
In it a poet speaks to her mother, who has recognised the reality that poets do not make money from their art and is offering her poet-daughter money from her purse. But there are other things going on and it is the skill of linking all of these threads and carrying all themes through to the end in a very naturalistic way which shows Ms Saunders’ deftness here.
To explain here the detail of how this is manifest, all its conceits and devices, would in my opinion spoil the pleasure of those I hope will go on to read it hereafter. However, as I must give you something, I’ll give you these two connecting elements as a tease and assure that there is much more taking place in the poet’s mind and in the physical environment surrounding mother and daughter:-
It reminds me of the tulips dad planted/so we’d have colour after he had gone.
This casual observation prompted by the shape of a heron’s head from behind appears early in the poem and is one of the themes echoed in the velvet glove punch of the final stanza, which runs as follows:-
Mum, you have your purse out again,/and that worried frown that dad used to have/when he was looking at the tulip bulbs,/wondering if they would come out in time.
The fourth and final poem I draw to your attention is one which is simultaneous easy and very difficult – So much Blood around my Name. I say easy because it is written in terms which are easy to understand even on first reading, not requiring much interpretation. The subject matter, however – as in many of the collection’s poems – is raw, visceral, uncomfortable, confessional.
There is much blood and guts within Feverfew but what we have here is quite different. This is not the remote blood and guts of mythology or that associated with the regular behaviour of the animal kingdom.
In this poem the first mentions of blood arise in a specific recollection, written in past tense, of a blood commitment symbolised by a fresh tattoo of the narrator’s name on her former lover’s arm (How deeply I’d been etched into your skin,/you bloomed blood.), a commitment which ended (…we needled each other,/until I left). The second reference to blood is in the present tense and comes with consideration of implied guilt which some would wish to place beside her name. It also echoes skilfully the blood which formed around her name at the time of the fresh tattoo :-
‘Years later I hear about your death.
He couldn’t go on without you. I am told.
I imagine your pale limbs under the earth. Those four letters extinguished by the dark.
So much blood around my name.’