Review – Frances Sackett, Cradle of Bones

Cradle of Bones, The High Window Press, thehighwindowpress.com , 98 pp., £10

I’m delighted that my friend Frances Sackett, with whom I discussed poetry over a number of years, has had this collection published by The High Window Press. Her first, The Hand Glass, came out with Seren in 1996.

Some people like collections to be organized around a single clearly determined theme. That’s fine in a pamphlet but to my mind it easily becomes claustrophobic in longer volumes. I enjoy the freedom and variety you find in a body of work that’s accumulated slowly, reflecting the diversity of a poet’s interests and approaches as well as the underlying unity of their sensibility and preoccupations. Such a taste suits Cradle of Bones: the poems were written over a number of years and take their impetus from stimuli of radically different kinds, but all very clearly emerge from the same mind. They combine sensuous, physical immediacy with spareness and restraint in a way that involves considerable technical skill and that in itself gives keen imaginative pleasure. However, the heart of Sackett’s best poems is in the conjuring up of emotional impressions that shine through the physical ones and are felt all the more deeply for not being made explicit.  I can show what I mean by looking at the first two stanzas of “Kinder Scout”:

The jagged edge of the wall
off the edge of the world,
where water flies up to a vapour
beneath the hand of the wind.

The lonely dirt road
shining away to the distance,
where under a falling mist
grasses bind into sheaves.

 

In the first of those stanzas, actual description only plays a small part in creating vivid sensuous impressions. Physical immediacy comes from sound as much as from image. The two lines describing the wall seem to be flung out, all phonetic hard edges. The “j” of “jagged” is picked up in “edge” (twice), and the heavy stresses on “wall” and “world” are emphasised by the abrupt pauses after them. The repetition of “edge of the” gives a s of mounting intensity and insistence that climaxes in the phonetic repetitions between “wall” and “world”. But the masterstroke comes with another and very subtle sound effect – “worl” repeats the sound effect of “wall” very closely but as it expands into “world” there’s a sudden sense of release, of the widening vistas beyond the wall. This is a point of transition because the next two lines are dominated by gentler stresses and softer, blurrier sounds, like the fricative “f” and “v”, in which you almost hear the wind. You might say that the sounds of the first two lines echo stone and the sounds of lines three and four embody watery mist and wind. There’s no lingering on description of the wind, but again we get a vivid impression of its brawny, blustery activity by sound, rhythm, and the strength of the verb “flies”.

In the second stanza there’s a change of focus which I find very beautiful. As far as what is explicitly said is concerned, it simply continues the description of the external, physical scene. However, it seems to me that the imaginative focus has decisively shifted from the physical scene to the emotions it provokes in the observer. These are complex, subtle, shimmering and implicit, so it would be wrong to try to try to spell them out too precisely. The starting point, of course, is the way the loneliness attributed to the road seems a reflection of the feelings of the speaker, but beyond that there’s a delicate interplay of positive and negative feelings, with joy at the beauty of the scene on the one hand and on the other an apparent wistfulness at possibilities not explored, the road not taken. Though the imagery has been full of dynamism and process the poet seems to feel herself excluded from it, a mere bystander and observer.

I hope that’s enough to show the sensitivity of Sackett’s expression and how skilfully she uses sound and rhythm to convey emotion. Such tacit communication seems to me to penetrate the imagination more deeply and to take a more intimate possession of it for not being explicit. I think such an approach reflects an instinctive sensitivity to the nature of feeling, which can only be coarsened and violated by direct expression.

Whether prompted by artistic or moral considerations, there’s an additional reticence in poems involving other people. Here too, the feelings expressed in the poem are precipitated by sound and sensuous image rather than directly stated. Wider narrative is almost completely suppressed. In this example, the title is all the context we’re given but it powerfully shapes our reactions to everything that follows:

SECOND WIFE

He walks her once around their garden
and as she touches roses
there is a sudden, twisting fall;
a velvet touch, but cool as evening.

The bushes circle her with shadow
as though their Autumn pruning knew
just how she’d stand and take this garden in,
and take this man away.

He is dressing her now
in the good clothes he kept;
moulding her frame with his hands –

that only leads to shedding clothes,
as the willow taps its long hair
hysterically at the windowpane.

I wouldn’t want to violate the mystery of this poem by laying out my own thoughts about the cross-currents of feeling that stir under almost every image, given the title. I will say that that its combination of reticence and mystery with a kind of explosive frankness seems to me a remarkable achievement. I’d also like to give particular mention to the beautiful love poems “Night Call”, and “Touch”.

A whole section of the book is given over to poems about works of art. This can be dangerous territory; such poems can end up seeming too dependent on the works they describe to stand on their own feet. Only two of Sackett’s seem to me to fall into that trap – “Two Faces of a Daughter”, after Millais, and “The Lancashire Madonna”, about a statue outside Manchester Cathedral. The key to the success of the others is that they don’t rely on transcription of the visual contents of the work, they centre (again) on the skilful evoking of feeling, whether by finding poetic ways of expressing what’s in the work itself or exploring the poet’s reactions to it. “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”, after Vermeer, takes off from Vermeer’s famous painting, first by bringing the girl out of the painting to tell her story, then returning her to it with the stinging and exactly timed conclusion

I will stand here forever
and never again notice how
the sun floods through the window,
gilding everything with lies.

Without Sackett’s saying anything explicitly, we’re invited to meditate quite widely both on amorous and sexual relations (including the pathos of separation in those days of years-long voyaging) and also on the relation between life and art (from the girl’s point of view that last line expresses the bitterness of betrayal; at the same time, as a comment on the difference between art and life it brings into consideration art’s power to enhance reality, remaking our brazen world as a golden one, as Sir Philip Sidney put it). Part of the charm of this section is in the very different perspectives on life that the different poems offer, or, I’d suggest, the different takes on life that different works of art allow Sackett to express, in very different styles. Compare the rhythms of two very different poems inspired by paintings by Gauguin, the voluptuously caressing, incantatory listing of “Et l’or de leurs corps” with the nervous tension of “The Spirit of the Dead Watches”. The first starts

And the gold of their bodies
And the musk of their skin
And the sleek of their hair
And the sloe of their eyes

The second

I can feel her fear
as the dark one watches.
She looks for me
but I keep to the shadows.

“I can feel her fear”. Ian Pople, quoted on the back cover, comments on the “profound empathy with her subjects” in Sackett’s poems. I think that is key to their sensitive humanity and their ability to lend themselves to very different feelings according to their occasions. I think the person speaking those lines from “The Spirit of the Dead” should be understood as both the artist painting the picture, and the poet looking at it and imagining herself as that artist. Again, there’s a very delicate interplay of implicit reflections on the contradictory demands on the artist to empathize and to keep distance. The keeping of distance gives Sackett’s poems their restraint and the precision of their art. It implies a precious quality of respect on her part, both for the reader, who must be allowed space to respond to the poems on their own terms and for the poem’s subjects, which so often involve the feelings and experiences of other people. At the same time, empathy brings her close to those feelings and allows her to give them a renewed life in the poems.

One Response to “Review – Frances Sackett, Cradle of Bones”

  1. Davide Cooke said:

    Jan 09, 19 at 7:03 pm

    This is an astute and subtle review, Edmund.


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