Review – James Sheard’s The Abandoned Settlements

James Sheard, The Abandoned Settlements, 64 pp, £9.99, Jonathan Cape

Sheard’s intense lyrical subjectivity contrasts with both Longley and Clifton. Most of the poems in The Abandoned Settlements involve the ending of a relationship. Many are haunted by other losses, personal or cultural. In some the break-up of the relationship is central; in others, like the fine title poem, there’s a wider focus and a looser weave of analogies between different scenes of physical dereliction and different places where lost love is remembered. This is one of many poems that display Sheard’s gifts in the orchestration of sound and rhythm, his skill in creating pictures drenched in unstated feeling and his ability to bring abstract ideas and images together in a kind of fluid interaction:

It’s like that. It’s like the sands where once you might have watched
a lover coming wet and lovely towards you – undisturbed now
and colonised by the shyest of creatures.

Such lines are vividly cinematic, though they also express a state of mind in a way only words can. Many of these poems do suggest cinema at its most sophisticated, not only in their visual clarity and precision and the expressive way they use visual detail but also in what you might call the smoothness of their tracking, which is something we feel not only in the movement through visual space but also in the way a single imaginative arc carries us through from the visual to the conceptual.  In “Plumb-Line”, for example, one sentence tracks from close-up (“The time will come / when fingers moving / restless on a table-top / will touch a thread”) to a longer shot (“and find its loop / and drop a plumb-line”) to end in a purely conceptual metaphor (“clean down through me”).

Every poem in this book gave me real, often keen sensuous pleasure. Pretty well every poem fused that pleasure with more complicated, elusive but haunting emotional experiences of loss and displacement and the continuing power of love. We see this fusion in the penultimate poem, “Late”. The speaker says he brought someone “here in late summer”:

to watch you walk up through the blown grasses
and their feathery tops moving gently around you.
You came to me, slowly, down the long shade

of the laburnum arch …

The physical details are hallucinatorily clear and they’re shone through by larger meanings in a completely unforced way, the suggestions shimmering directly into the imagination without any effort of intellectual decoding. It’s one of many moments of remarkable delicacy and imaginative force. And yet on a more profound level nothing is solid, everything swims in an indeterminate space between possibility and actuality because of the way in which in the poem as a whole different times and grammatical moods dissolve into each other. This, I think, is what is truly remarkable about Sheard’s achievement; not the sensuous imagery in and for itself, impressive though that is, but the precision with which he uses it to evoke states of feeling that are as powerful as they are shifting and difficult to define.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which appeared in The North 58.

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