2012, Cinnamon Press, Craig Raine, Dunstanburgh Castle Ruins, First Cut, fountain pen, Gail Ashton, Philomela, Poetry, review, Seamus Heaney, Some call us angels, The Other Side of Glass, Untitled, verse
The heft of the fountain pen really does deliver the tactile pleasures Seamus Heaney refers to in Digging. Idealistically, naïvely, I had presumed that this thing of beauty, coupled with paper and ink worthy of Albus Dumbledore, would coax a few friends out of the twenty-first century and back into a gentler, slower world of letters. But no. The exponential increase in free minutes and the explosion of the social media leaves me feeling less, not more connected.
In Letters from Abroad, Gail Ashton brilliantly envisions the bygone world of letters with a metaphor worthy of Craig Raine, the ‘pen an oar rowing paper, yet to give up its blue-veined crackle, / fire the liquid at its heart’. She endows the act of writing with an Edwardian glamour and loads her pen with passion. The itch that she cannot scratch, the desire to communicate, leads to a hand ‘italic, clear, violet as a chandelier’. If you love fountain pens then you know what she’s talking about. If you don’t, get one. The strong sense of internal rhyme and rhythm here articulate the harmoniousness of the act of writing.
The Other Side of Glass is a beautiful collection of poetry, suffused with the wildness of the British coastal landscape. Ashton’s language is at turns both light and whimsical, and gutturally alliterative in a salty Seafarer kind of way. In her hands, Dunstanburgh Castle Ruins ‘Begins with ice-skald, / scree, scrimp of air’, loaded with strange Scandinavian wildness. Similar language is joyfully employed in Some call us angels and the Carteresque Untitled, Ashton’s unsettling skit on a Scots Metamorphosis. Throughout the collection, Ashton plays with myth to great effect, with a short sequence of poems on the Philomela myth unravelling like a skein on the page. There’s surprising, playful versatility in evidence at every turn.
A notable poem is the implicitly violent First Cut, where ‘he winks at you when their backs are turned’. The terse couplets suggest intimacy, secrets and abuse. It’s sickening stuff. Then the poem hits its stride with extended, smoothly enjambed stanzas. The reader relaxes, as we realise that the ‘keen-edged smile’ of the first line speaks of nothing more sinister than wood-turning. The images of violence are adeptly recycled as ‘quick-shave curls / and sawdust’. ‘Feel it, he says, touch it just there’, and suddenly the reader’s stomach is turned again – the form of the poem as sadistically playful as its male character. Gail Ashton is a poet absolutely in control of her craft and hers is the power to make us laugh or cry.