Anne Stevenson, Astonishment

What a warm, life-enhancing book Astonishment is. Poetry seems to ooze out of Stevenson with an ease born of long practice. The mood is above all one of celebration, celebration of the strangeness and joy of being alive in the body, with active senses and an active intelligence to accept the abundance of life’s gifts.

One of the first poems, “Constable Clouds and a Kestrel’s Feather”, is a kind of disguised ars poetica and ars vivendi. It draws one in by sensuous textures, voluptuous phrasing, beautiful, sharp visual images and playful fantasy. Comparing actual clouds to clouds painted by Constable, discussing the game of seeing shapes in clouds, observing that in contrails we have a kind of cloud Constable never saw, noticing that contrails fluff out in a pattern like the pattern of a feather, finding a kestrel’s feather on the turf, it seems almost to drift on the stream of consciousness, lightly steered by unobtrusive rhymes and half-rhymes. It was only when I saw how the last line – “nature’s nature is to work in form” – echoed the first – “England still moulds them as Constable saw them” – that I realised how controlled the development of thought in the poem is. On one level, it’s a justification of form as a vital skill of the artist. Beyond that, it explores how the world we see is both something we receive and something our imaginations create, and how what we receive is both what is given by nature and what is created for us by artists and others who have taught us our seeing.

In fact many of these poems are about teachers – artists who have influenced us all, less universal figures like the poets Michael Murphy and Matt Simpson, and people like Stevenson’s piano and cello teachers as a girl. The idea of handing on richer capacities for experience is everywhere. This includes experience of the natural world, to which Stevenson is keenly responsive. In “Teaching my Sons to Swim in Walden Pond”, what she teaches is how to become closer and more attentive to wild nature. It’s full of lovely images of this, as is the whole book:

Learn from the otter and the marsh hen
how to steal through water like grease
on a ribbon of silence.

There are more sombre notes – an octogenarian poet is inevitably exercised by the passing of time, and “How it is” presents the shock of age and physical decline as memorably as anything in Larkin – but even this bleak inevitability is embraced in a generously resilient spirit.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which first appeared in The North 50.

Anne Stevenson, Astonishment, 80 pp, £8.95, Bloodaxe Books


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