Matthew Francis, Muscovy, 80 pp, £12.99 hardback, Faber and Faber

I loved Muscovy for its variety, and for a playfulness of spirit that has its own gravity. In the first poem, based on a seventeenth century tale describing a flight to the moon, the narrator tells us

The moon rested on the mountain, rock on rock –
you might step from one to the other

and indeed he does fly to the moon in an elaborate contraption drawn by geese. Revelling in the exotic and the fantastical, Francis leads us easily from world to world and time to time. In “Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster”, based on The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, he gives us an eleventh century Japanese court. Brilliantly, he makes us experience this world both as if from inside and with a sense of its dislocating strangeness. Sei Shonagon’s lists of things that make the heart beat faster, things that fall from the sky and so on are transformed into electrifyingly vivid condensations of moments in a court lady’s life. We experience her physical sensations sharply: “Threads of leg on her face, the hairline / sound of a mosquito in the room”. In my next quote we’re made to experience that extreme state of physical sensation and attentiveness in which inner and outer worlds seem to fuse, and to share the tension between the lady’s desire and the pressure of regulation as she lies in the dark waiting for her lover:

She is a room, a door, the stretched skin
….of her mind that a finger taps on.
……..She mustn’t speak, but she can rustle.

At the same time, we’re held at a distance. “She” is never actually named. What we’re given of her experience is all in close-up, removing the context and perspective that would allow us to rationalise the apparent arbitrariness of the social mores she lives by. She, of course, takes this world for granted; it’s only to us that it seems strange.

But what isn’t strange, when you take away the glaze of familiarity? The title poem is a long narrative describing a seventeenth century embassy to Russia. What our Restoration Englishmen find there seems more peculiar to them than encounters with a poltergeist and other spirits in Wales seem to the speakers of three ghost-poems; knowing what to expect of such spirits, they speak of them in comically familiar terms, however frightening they may be. A sense of wonder glows through the description of Robert Boyle’s experiments with phosphorus in 1680, but what he finds is that this marvellous light is “made of us”. Closer to home, “Phonebox Elegy” memorably interfuses personal memory with science fiction strangeness as it makes those old enough to do so relive the intense emotions associated with public phone booths by teenagers and young adults of a pre-mobile phone generation. While I enjoyed Francis’s formal experiments in the lipogram (in a suite of poems in homage to Perec) or in replacing letters with other typographic symbols, his real originality is in such purely imaginative displacements.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which appeared in The North 51.


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