I am glad I delayed writing this review. When I first received a copy of this poetry collection a few weeks ago I dipped in and out of it, savouring individual poems for themselves, not attempting to take in the effect of the whole collection. On a more recent day I sat down and read the work cover to cover, while taking the occasional break to read a Novella in Flash (of which I shall post a review shortly). That’s just the way my brain sometimes works! The delay however has made me appreciate Venus more.
I had already viewed a couple of videos and attended a number of online events in which Gaynor Kane read poems from this collection before I decided to purchase a copy, and having now seen the entire context on paper I realise that there is even more to her work than these recitations promised. Venus in Pink Marble is a substantial collection containing 61 poems covering a breadth of subject matter which work well and sit well alongside each other.
Although it comes relatively early in her poetry career, this publication feels like an attempt to set down an opus for future reference, a work which will reward study by others. For the author, it must give a sense of satisfaction that she has succeeded in including so much she wanted to document and opine.
As well as the warmth and humanity infusing many of the poems, there is research and authenticity in those which portray technical matter or historical episodes. There are word lists and word pictures which take the reader with ease of authority to a period or a place. Many of these are poems to inhabit or at least to visit frequently. There are stories of people, notable, mythical and everyday but all are given equal care in Gaynor’s skilful hands.
In order to encompass the broad subject matter the collection is divided into three sections – The Lock, Letter to Me and A Life Drawn
It is invidious, and would anyway take too long, to select particular poems for praise, especially as I keep spotting ‘new favourites’ when re-reading. Some of your favourites will differ from mine in such a varied selection. However, in an attempt to give a flavour, I shall pick a couple of examples from each section.
From Section 1, Dead Short on the System, Belfast, 1923, just four stanzas long, recounts the story of a rat chewing through power station cables bringing trams to a halt throughout the city. Some of the text suggests a nervous humour about the incident but the killer words are found in verse two –
Those tram-trapped, fear the curfew more than the rain
Whereas most of us would think about the inconvenience of getting home on a New Year’s night that was ‘dark, damp and sticky like a new born’, in the midst of a civil war other considerations apply.
Also from Section 1, From Benin to Belfast sets out a quite unique perspective and is a remarkable and original piece of work which took my breath away on first reading. I still get a chill when the ‘ivory masks’ to which we are introduced in Benin (modern Nigeria), having travelled the bloody way of Imperialism, in another form are represented in a Belfast church in troubled times. The significance of the word mask and the colours ivory and red in this piece, which I see was long listed in the 2018 Pendle War Poetry Competition, create themes holding together a work which otherwise may have had to be explored in three separate poems.
From Section 2, the poet’s more personal pieces, I have picked The first time I saw him cry and Polyester.
The first time I saw him cry – a title which is a narrative in itself. In less skilful hands this might have been a cheap effort, building the image of a strong male just to describe his vulnerability. Instead, it is a matter-of-fact telling of receiving news of loss within the context of everyday events. It is made all the more authentic from its accurate placing in an earlier time when telephone landlines were not universal, mobile phones non-existent, and there was great dependence on public transport and walking. Told from the point of view of a child hearing one side of a conversation, nothing is said within the text of the poem about her father crying but only implied in his curt imparting of sad news to her.
Polyester is a Christmas-related story of near-tragedy prevented by the quick-thinking and actions of a mother. Like The first time I saw him cry this poem is written in first person from a child’s point of view and I assume it is autobiographical. The first stanza lulls the reader into a cosy state ‘Slippered…/feeling the glow’ but the second stanza travels from ‘drowning in heat, like a Christmas /pudding drenched in brandy’ to ‘fire /licking my hair, hugging my back’. By the end of the third verse the child is rolled in a saving mat and, referring to earlier metaphors, ‘brandy-snapped and smoke-smothered’.
The poem concludes with a calm Christmas morning, almost as if nothing untoward had happened, but presents include a replacement dressing gown of cotton rather than the flammable material.
From Section 3, relating to art, I have selected A Life Drawn and The Vampire of Lazaretto Vecchio.
A Life Drawn is inspired by the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition – A Life in Drawing and is told from the perspective of a naked artist’s model, standing still in a room in a man’s world kept cold deliberately, being exposed to an artist kept warm by ‘tunic, robes, headscarves’. Her position is due to poverty, lack of opportunity and necessity rather than choice. He does not appear to acknowledge her living humanity –
Our eyes do not meet. He inhales me.
The Vampire of Lazaretto Vecchio is an exercise in beautiful expression, tenderly cadenced, expressive poetry with a Gothic quality which suits the subject matter. It is a joy to read and re-read and I am delighted that the poet was able to achieve this atmospheric work, inspired as her Notes reveal by hearing the story of the discovery of a skeleton with a brick lodged in its mouth on an Italian plague island. Just a couple of extracts here (from verses one and three) to provide a sense of the quality of description –
……sailing to the sanatorium
in the white boat. White for the uncontaminated
the blessed and clean.
Rancid heat retreats at dusk, the sick wards weep
like religious statues, infecting the air with howls for help.
At the end of this review, it will come as no surprise to you that I recommend this work without reservation. If I was the sort to indulge in puns I might call it a Venus in Pink Marble-ous first full collection.
Instead I’ll just say there’s still time before Christmas to secure your copy as a gift for you or someone you know who appreciates honest and skilful writing. For your copy go to Gaynor Kane at http://gaynorkane.com/bookstore