Jane Draycott, The Kingdom – review

Jane Draycott is the reverse of a confessional poet, or even a poet whose persona is one of affable conversational candour. To me, the pleasures she offers are more deeply engaging. In all her books, many of her best poems are haunting, haunted-seeming traps for meditation, full of sidesteps, ellipses and paradoxically intense evocations of absence. The proportion of such poems seems particularly high in this one. Some are enigmatic, others more straightforward. Either way, they seize the imagination by the clarity and economy of their phrasing, the poise of their rhythms and a strange, nervy tautness that gives every word and syntactical turn the urgency of a step on a tightrope. Take the beginning of ‘The Claim’:


So many came to that portion
of the claim, the water not too deep there,
and left with tiny grains of gold,

dust really, and the freezing work
painstaking to the bone,
all that remained of Eldorado


Simple words but how much work they do! I’m not just thinking of the vividness and rapid unfolding of the pictures they evoke but of how the common phrase ‘gold dust’ is exploded in a way that creates a dramatic shift in tone. In line 3 the ‘tiny grains of gold’ seem to shine in the hand, minute, hard won but beautiful and apparently worth it; ‘dust really’ dismisses them as valueless. The poem continues through a series of swift imaginative changes, darting to and fro through space and time. Eldorado – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’ dream kingdom of unimaginable wealth – becomes ‘the land of how-to videos’, broken things that ‘we’ had dreamed of fixing are instanced as a shattered screen, a heat pump that is ‘like a heart / destroyed by years of insults’, and even as


the mind, split into a dozen pieces
like a priceless vase exploded

on a marble floor, slipped
from the aristocrat’s hands


The aristocrat’, Draycott writes, plunging us into the scene as if it were already familiar to us. The marble floor suggests that the aristocrat is an eighteenth or nineteenth century collector, but at this point there’s a stunning imaginative move into the Chinese or Japanese world pictured on the pot:


(the crane in flight, the little bridge,

the homeward labourers as snow
begins to fall).


This is reminiscent of the way Keats moves into the scene sculpted on the Grecian urn in the fourth stanza of his Ode, and all the more piercing for the suddenness with which ‘as snow / begins to fall’ makes it happen.


We return to gold at the poem’s close:


                        In the ancient art
of the broken all could be repaired

with shining seams of precious metal,
the bird, the village and the snow,
and even made more lovely

by the gleaming scars. All you needed
was sufficient gold. All you needed
was not to be finished by the cold.


‘Gleaming scars’. Draycott’s rapidly unfolding images pull ideas together in startling ways, refreshing perception by breaking down compartments and prizing apart conceptualisations that deaden awareness. She does this here by directly describing the process of kintsugi instead of simply referring to it. The phrase ‘the ancient art of the broken’ combines punchiness with a vast, vague and ambiguous suggestive reach. So vividly described, the process is made intensely and tantalizingly present to the imagination and, at the same time, as remote from daily life as something in a fairy tale. The last two and a half lines, returning us to the freezing river of the claim, put ‘the ancient art’ out of reach in a more physical way, with the repeated ‘all you needed’ sardonically emphasizing the gulf between aspiration and reality. Finally, those ‘gleaming scars’ bring the animate and the inorganic together in a way that creates a disturbingly unstable sensation, like touching something one expects to be dead and finding it alive or vice versa. What’s imagined as mended with scars of gold isn’t just a broken pot but the labourers and the bird in the living scene that the pot opens onto, and the shattered mind it represents. ‘Shining seams of precious metal’ doesn’t simply give a more vivid idea than ‘gold’ would have done, it specifically emphasizes gold’s metallic inhumanity.

The interweaving of ideas, images and sensations within individual poems gives each a richly unstable suggestiveness in itself. Moreover, threads run from poem to poem in ways that will penetrate the reader’s mind more fully on every rereading. For example, the idea in ‘The Claim’ of seeking gold in a prospector’s claim obliquely connects with the way the previous poem revolves around ideas of claiming charity and seeking ‘something to inherit’. Called ‘The Kingdom’, this poem evokes various Biblical references, most relevantly perhaps Christ’s prophecy of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25, ‘Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world’. These are adjacent poems, but there are plenty of remoter connections creating their own tremors of suggestion; for example, between ‘the ancient art of the broken’ and the sick children of ‘Nurse Jameson Thirteen Years on the Juvenile Ward’  whose ‘strength // leaks from them like a bandaged tap’ or the boy ‘in whose body the hope / of adventure still flowers like honeysuckle over a broken wall’, or between the ‘shining seams of precious metal’ in ‘The Claim’ and the way ‘Behind Closed Doors’ describes Titian’s Diana as ‘perfect android, immortal machine’. Such connections are far from incidental. Diana’s invulnerability is contrasted with Actaeon’s destruction and the way that involves a transformation of his vulnerable human flesh. Although Draycott makes it seem more as if he’s been overtaken by disease – fittingly, in a poem imagining the gallery under covid – in the myth and in Titian’s painting, of course, he’s transformed to a stag and devoured by his own hounds. And the stag reappears in the enigmatically haunting driving poem, ‘Alone that day I drove, I thought’, where it’s first a deer, then ‘more like / a wolf’ , a free, running life that nobody owns but that is vulnerable to bullets and cars.

Such webs of affiliation can be traced endlessly. Taken individually and exhibited out of context they may seem trivial. Cumulatively and in context they become powerfully suggestive. Through them we seem to glimpse a living body of feelings, thoughts, and associations swimming below the surface of the poem, more and more of which comes into focus once one’s noticed its presence. This is true of the poems most tantalizingly resistant to paraphrase or interpretation as much as it’s true of the more immediately graspable ones. In fact I think the most haunting poems are often the ones in which a definite line of thought does least to tether the associative suggestiveness of resonant statements, either singly or in combination with others. They haunt the imagination or at least they haunt mine because they combine evocative force with a sense of incompleteness, of implications expanding indefinitely but urgently beyond whatever I could read into them.

I suggested at the beginning that these poems were haunted as well as haunting. Although Draycott is so far from putting herself forward as a personality in her verse, her writing does seem to be steeped in feeling, taut with subjective responsiveness, impelled by or sensitive to the particular ranges of emotion suggested by recurring images of illness and hospitals, of things vulnerable, broken or lost, of loneliness, of a yearning separation from something that seems almost intrinsically inaccessible. Such images can have even more force when they appear as it were gratuitously, as in ‘Rain Check’ when the speaker is advised that


even in the belly
of the storm, your clothes clinging
to you like desperate children and down
to your naked bones
……………………………..that’s when
you’ll see them, the ringing mountains
……and the water’s universe


or in ‘Magpie’, in which the poet seems to identify with the magpie of the title:


All I want for my breakthrough
is to crash the force shield of this screen
and be there with you, like the magpie
and the still life, grapes painted so naturally
it tore the canvas with its beak and desperate claws.

I have no idea whether or how far the emotions suggested reflect experiences personal to Draycott. The ‘subjectivity’ they evoke seems to me essentially the subjectivity of our time with its multiple sources of anxiety feeding into each other. Repeatedly, it pits things as they are in our broken world against the hope or dream of another, better, possibly non-existent one.

The emotional range of this book is narrower than that of say Over, which sometimes vividly evokes joy and sensuous beauty. However, its art seems to me to cut even deeper, to be even more daringly and intensely evocative, and thereby to offer even more thrilling expressions of artistic power.


The Kingdom by Jane Draycott. Carcanet. 64pp.;  £11.99

I would like to thank Danielle Hope for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 106.

Leave a Reply