Sarah Maguire, Almost the Equinox – Review

Sarah Maguire, Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems, 160 pp, £15.99, Chatto & Windus, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd, London SW1V 2SA

Everything in Maguire’s universe is alive and in movement. She animates not only flowers and trees but the stone of a wall, pebbles on a beach, roads muscled with water in the rain.

Everything is connected too; her vision sweeps through space and time, from the abyssal ocean floor to the stars, from the Eocene to the present day. But because she sees everything in movement these connections are fluid and unstable, and her imagination is caught by the way things diverge as much as by the way they come together. One poem recalls how she re-established contact with her father. He is intensely evoked as a whole person – “I found you / shrunken, frightened, // speechless / on a geriatric ward” – and then almost instantly dispersed into parts that both add up to one poignantly suggested life and are vividly imagined as distinct living beings – “your legs gone dead / from grief … your wasted, / beautiful hands / slim messengers of fear”. In the remarkable “Hibiscus”, the poet is carried through the streets of Marrakech riding pillion on a Vespa. The whole poem is about moving together and moving apart: she’s with a perfect stranger, perhaps planning to have sex with him, riding through a strange place in a long, looping chain of fleeting encounters with the people and things whose crossings and interweavings are the life of a city that seems exotic and full of wonder to her, ordinary and grounded to itself.

There’s a political dimension to this. Maguire is the founder and director of the Poetry Translation Centre. She’s acutely aware of the way separate societies impact on each other. Several fine poems explore the hopeless attraction that Fortress Europe had for those who stared at it across the Straits of Gibraltar, years before the current refugee crisis. I’d particularly mention “Europe” and “Mahbouba Zaidi’s Hands”. Such pieces are as good as they are as political poems because they’re also so much more, because they’re informed by an imagination alive to so much beyond politics. We see the power of this imagination in “A Fistful of Foraminifera” with its astonishing shifts of perspective and scale. Its first section goes

Sand, at first glance –

a rich grist
of grains and slim seeds,

into a swarm of small homes

painted rose or ochre, saffron, chalk,
some blown steady as glass –

hyaline, diamond,
the pellucid private cradle of a tear.

The speed of transformation is dazzling: sand, seeds, insects (“swarm”), small homes of painted rooms … So is the economy of wording. Each colour name opens fresh vistas. “Cradle” beautifully deepens the humanising effect of earlier images. The tension between “pellucid” and “private” creates an exquisite sense of the creatures’ vulnerability. I’m reminded of Crashaw and even more of Marvell. Such imaginative flights take off from solid scientific ground, however: the evocative “hyaline”, used by Milton to describe the shining of a glassy sea, is also the common scientific descriptor for the tests or shells of some foraminifera. The volatility of the impressions is counterbalanced and stabilized by the absence of finite verbs. The whole section describes states, not actions or processes, but a peculiar contained dynamism suffuses it. The present participle “opening” is given maximum force by having a line to itself, the noun “swarm” seems to seethe with the activity of the verb, and “painted” and “blown” both flash transient images of human actions across the description of the look of the foraminifera. This section is delicate, almost ethereal. Later ones dramatically widen and deepen the context in space, in time and in the range and kind of human actions invoked by metaphor.

With no gaps between sections, the volume has 145 pages of actual poetry and not a page of padding. I strongly recommend it.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to reprint this review, which appeared in The North 55.

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