Review – The Occupant by Jane Draycott

The Occupant by Jane Draycott. Carcanet Press, 64 pp. £9.99

These quietly beautiful, profoundly unsettling poems neither present puzzles nor tell you what to think; they ask you to dwell on them and in them imaginatively, letting their resonances and suggestions accumulate in your mind. This is made a pleasure by their formal grace. Phrase by phrase, they make clear, vivid, evocative statements, but as wholes they resist resolving into settled impressions or rounding off into paraphrasable conclusions. Each is charged with hidden depths, elliptical connections and startling changes of tack. They take you on long journeys in a few words. Resisting closure, they stay hauntingly alive in the mind.

In “Prospect”, for example, the first eight lines evoke an archetypal refugee crisis:

Anyone who wanted to could leave, could gather
shivering on the south side of the river,
labelled and provided for with socks and sweaters
and a little cash. We walked across the water
in our thousands and left behind for ever
all that was great: the monuments and sewers,
cathedrals, theatres, mothers, lovers, brothers
as the flames licked at the city’s raging heart.

Vivid, moving, and sensitively alive as that is, what really makes the poem is the way the next six lines take us in a completely unexpected direction: “Faced with the prospect of living forever, / we headed for the country lanes together.” “We” are now refugees from mortality itself, and the poem suggests that this may mean being refugees from life: “We had left behind forever / all that we had loved. It was a start”. Rereading the octave, “the river” takes on a new metaphorical suggestiveness (the river Styx?) as does the idea of walking across water. The poem was apparently inspired by a medical conference suggesting the possibility of living forever. It seems to breathe scepticism about the desirability of doing so, inviting us to meditate on the intimate relations of love, loss and death.

This is a recurring theme and gives the book a great deal of its emotional depth. We find it again in the sonnet “Lost”. Deeply rooted in Draycott’s own imagination and strongly connected to a number of poems in her earlier books, “Lost” develops around the situation of Hermione in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and around various hints in Keats. Revolving paradoxical  ideas of loss and recovery (“you are a girl again – lost, so it seems / like everything”) it links them to the relations of mother and child in a way that echoes several of Draycott’s other poems. Returning to life after a sleep like a Russian winter, the speaker says “The wonder is the waking world / is so much like the dream.” This reminds us of Keats’ famous statement that “The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth”, and reflects the symbiotic intertwining of truth and the imagination in Draycott’s writing. She has a gift for making the world strange in a way that cleanses our perceptions and opens our imaginations to thoughts and feelings that can strike with almost visionary intensity and that do feel like revelations of truth from new angles, rather than like simple fantasy.

A striking example is the eerily beautiful “Lent”, which is again about the acceptance of loss, and which culminates in a stunning display of the imagination’s power. At the start, incongruous fields of discourse are skilfully interwoven and set reacting against each other:

The bailiff winds are at the door.
Alcohol and cigarettes must go. Abstain,
repent. No meat, no chocolate, no more
obsessive checking of your phone
like the pulse of a dying friend, refrain.

The simile in line five is as explosively strange as Eliot’s comparison of evening to a patient etherized upon a table. Remarkably, however, this powerful image doesn’t overwhelm or trivialize evocations of the homely, secularized version of giving things up for Lent, which I think is a testimony to Draycott’s sensitive humanity. Particular renunciations culminate in a universal renunciation that is an acceptance of the inevitability of change – “Let the world go like Michelangelo’s sculpture / made of snow.” After all this, the sestet opens with the house, the frame of our life, become utterly strange, wide open to the forces that blow on and through it, and freed from limitation to a particular time by a magically evocative touch of archaism in the language: “The house lies purged and empty. Still the winds blow”. The really unsettling twist and the moment that feels like a visionary revelation comes when Draycott tells us to renounce renunciation itself and think of a snow sculpture made by Michelangelo:

Retreat instead to that windless winter morning
when a young man stood in the gardens of the palazzo,
lips glistening, hair shining at the nape
before the bomb-blast of sun, not anyone’s to keep.

This is stunning because of the way it simultaneously embraces the inevitability of loss and resists or transfigures it by imagination. The very words that crystallize the glistening, inanimate form of the snow-sculpture simultaneously create the completely opposite image of a youth carnally, almost violently alive.

Setting opposites interacting is fundamental to Draycott’s approach, and here we also have the clash between windless stillness and the bomb-blast of sun. Almost any poem might illustrate this pervasive technique, but a very clear-cut example is three short sentences at the end of “The Stare” presenting three contradictory similes for a fantasy of how the blinding moonlight of a night in Moscow might climb into the writer’s hotel room and carry her off: “It’ll be like a giant’s delicate hand. / It’ll be like a winged horse ride. / It’ll be like a police searchlight.”

Three story-worlds – at least – in a mere twenty words. That kind of verbal economy and imaginative richness makes poem after poem a source of artistic and human delight.

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to reprint this review, which appeared in Acumen 88.


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