Sunday, 8 February 2009

Brittle Bones by Janet Fisher

I have 2 strongly differing reactions to Janet Fisher's new collection, Brittle Bones, published by Salt, beautifully in harback at £12.99.

The first reaction is to admire the sincerity and 'felt life' of the poems. The other is to find it mannered and derivative. It depends on how I respond to the gaps which are created in the poem for the purpose of engaging the imagination of the reader. 'Show, don't tell' is the maxim which underlines this stylisitic approach. However, sometimes you want more than you get in poems like, The Art of Politics:

They ask me what is a conservative.
I say someone who eats babies.

The poem is actually a short witty travalogue recounting a long car journey with her grandchildren, where the irritation of family life is immanent. In some ways the poem is excellent. The details in it are really well chosen but on another level I find it frustrating. Indeed, some of the poems could have been written by fellow director of The Poetry Business, Peter Sansom, who also supplies a quote on the dust cover about how good the collection is.

So, which is which?

Mother needs to pee like a dressmaker
and Dad won't put his socks on
till he's had his toenails cut
and we'll have a houseful in a minute.


Dad has first read of The Telegraph
and mum will have to crossword later
in front of the telly when he's at the pub.*

What she does better than Sansom - with his inimitable baggy lines and unfailing sense of focus - is write lyric poetry:

..........Clouds settle like islands
their shadows valleys for the moon to walk in.

There are some beautiful and striking poems where her own voice unfurls. Hope, for instance, should find its way into some anthology or other. It's one of those poems that you need as opposed to the slice of life stuff that avoids saying anything in case it starts telling. There are a few of those too.

Nevertheless, there's enough good stuff to make this collection worth getting. It's much better than most of what Salt publishes or Bloodaxe for that matter. And more 'felt life' than pastiche.

* The first poem is by Sansom, the second, Fisher. The style is much better suited to Sansom's anecdotes about his working class extended family than Fisher's middle class nuclear version.

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