Review – The Silvering by Maura Dooley
Bloodaxe Books, 64pp, £9.95.
Many poems in The Silvering reward repeated reading. I think two are brief masterpieces: “Sendai, City of Trees” and “Keen as are the arrows”. I’ll quote the first whole. I should say that Sendai, from which the boy has come, suffered catastrophic damage from a tsunami in 2011:
He turns the small corner of paper
over and in, in again and smaller.
A Christmas guest, far from home, entertaining
our small girl and thinking of his baby brother
as he folds and folds.
……………………………..When we see him next
his pale, sad, face will fill the screen, his English,
Best-in-Town, will speak of how families
have disappeared, whole streets have folded
in upon themselves, again and smaller.
But for now, he opens his palms and smiles,
a perfect crane stands ready, my daughter
claps her hands and in that moment
he makes the delicate ancient bird both sing and fly.
Nothing could move more lightly, but ripples of suggestion spread in all directions – thoughts about empathy, about how love of those close to us can enable us to reach across gulfs of strangeness, about the gifts and ironies of time, about the power of making, and many other things. This is because Dooley’s pauses and suspensions create breathing-spaces for our own imaginations and because her understated style makes us take up her slightest hint. “He folds and folds”, for example, suggests both the speaker’s awe at her guest’s careful work and the degree to which he loses himself in it, numbing his homesickness. The phrase “families / have disappeared” is colourless in itself, but before we reach it lines three and four have filled our imaginations with impressions that make us feel how much home and family mean. Crucially, these feel like our own perceptions rather than ideas pushed on us by the poet.
The poem has a clear simple structure, moving forward and back between times. Both its “present” and its “future” are understood to be past. What’s remarkable is the way Dooley uses this common device to make us feel the time of the last section as both past – a moment of poignantly lost happiness – and present – a moment of joy and communion that has an absolute value in itself, regardless of what will follow. The emotion of the stanza sways between these two poles, refusing to tilt definitively towards either. Such a straddling of two equally natural, equally powerful but contradictory reactions gives the poem richness and depth as a response to the vicissitudes of life in time.
The Silvering has been praised for addressing political issues. Several pieces do this very well, like “Still Life with Sea Pinks and High Tide”, about global warming. The danger of such subjects is a collapse into clichéd and over-explicit gesturing. Nothing of the sort happens here: Dooley makes the very medium of the poem’s expression embody her meaning, creating a friction between the stasis of the still life genre and the restless straining of her verbs, so that the whole piece feels uncomfortable and unbalanced, trapped and unstable. Admittedly, in a weaker political poem like “Life and Land, Thursday May 3rd 1979”, such an implicit embodying of ideas and sensations in the texture of the writing is replaced by a relatively crude explicitness. Flaws of that kind are exceptions in a book I’ll value and return to, both for several really outstanding poems and for the haunting and distinctive resonance of many others.
I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to reprint this review, which appeared in Acumen 86.