Colette Bryce, Self-Portrait in the Dark.

I’ve just belatedly caught up with Colette Bryce’s Self-Portrait in the Dark. I found it highly accomplished and enjoyable, full of tart but buoyant humour and engaging in the insights it gave into Bryce’s life and feelings.

Muldoon’s seems very much the dominant influence in tone and style. This appears in Bryce’s way of rhyming and in much of her phrasing, but above all in the way she uses metaphor and simile. Most of the poems that made the strongest impression on me follow Muldoon’s technique of elaborating far-fetched comparisons or conceits. However, Bryce doesn’t have the wild subversiveness of mind that was already such a striking feature of Muldoon’s writing in New Weather. Despite the similarities of technique, she is essentially playing a different game. We see this in the very good title poem, “Self-Portrait in the Dark (with Cigarette)”, which is apparently about the end of a relationship, portrayed in terms of the speaker’s insomnia and her absent partner’s left-behind car. The poem moves through a series of surprising metaphors and similes to end up comparing the winking red light on the dashboard first to the beating of a pulse and secondly to “the lighthouse-regular spark / of someone, somewhere, smoking in the dark”. The impacted double metaphor of lighthouse and cigarette is particularly rich in suggestion and if you just think of the things immediately being compared it does seem like a striking imaginative jump. It doesn’t quite come across like that in the poem, though. The metaphors of heart, lighthouse and lonely smoker in the dark belong too smoothly and naturally to the overall situation of a lover’s feeling abandoned for them to startle the reader in this wider context. Bryce’s conceits seem carefully prepared in a way Muldoon’s don’t. Behind this, I think, lies the fact that she is essentially a lyrical  writer who is concerned with the true expression of feeling, where Muldoon at the same stage in his career seems to me to have  been interested in a much more playfully explosive, much less grounded exploration of imaginative possibilities.

I admire what seems to me the fidelity to real feelings in Bryce’s volume. What I do regret about the ending of “Self-Portrait in the Dark (with Cigarette)” is the distancing evasiveness or defensiveness with which she introduces her final metaphors: “In a poem / it could represent…”

But these are very much early impressions of a writer I have only just started to read, and they may well change.

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