Jo Shapcott, Of Mutability

Of Mutability is a book about death and change. Some of its poems hauntingly evoke unease, fear and loss. What is astonishing is how often the same poems, looked at from another angle, twinkle with humour, playfulness and resilient vitality. “Procedure”, the penultimate piece, is one of the most poignantly life-affirming poems I know. Here, the guard of humour is dropped completely, but the final poem, “Piss Flower”, blends elements that are wonderfully funny with others that aren’t funny at all in an amazing fusion of rude wit with grace. This is an immediately accessible and enjoyable book. It’s also a highly sophisticated one that gradually draws the reader in to explore depths and complexities of tone and resonance that may not be noticed at first. The poems invite repeated reading because each fresh encounter with them refracts feelings and ideas in new ways, but understanding them seldom involves solving puzzles.

In terms of style, the wild, flashy energy and linguistic exuberance that were so thrilling in Phrase Book and My Life Asleep have been pruned back hard in Of Mutability. The effect is not at all to weaken the imaginative force of the poetry. If anything, it’s the reverse. Extravagant fantasy and dry, subversive or surreal humour are as evident as ever, but the quieter language in which they’re expressed allows a subtler, more shifting interplay of tones than in the earlier books. Shapcott shows remarkable fineness of touch in the way she springs idea after idea in the reader’s mind. In the title poem, for example, we start with a very direct, strong yet simple statement of the speaker’s situation as a cancer sufferer that draws us in instantly as if we were walking with her:

Too many of the best cells in my body
Are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw
In this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four …

In the next line and a half there’s a muted yet enormous shift:

and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small
among the numbers. Razor small.

Without taking our eyes off the immediate situation, in language as grounded as the pavement she’s walking on, Shapcott has invoked something like the metaphysical perspective of Pascal’s “le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” but she’s expressed it in a down to earth way, without fuss or pretension, as something we all feel.

This is a honed collection, full of variety but showing a profound thematic coherence. There’s not a poem in it that I wouldn’t love to discuss in detail. The first three pieces (all sonnets) all evoke the speaker’s cancer but do so in terms of an impressively varied range of suggestion, making radically different metaphorical connections between cellular change and the processes of life in the surrounding world and showing sharply differentiated phases of the speaker’s coming to terms with her situation. Age, sickness, mortality and love are conjured up with extraordinary power in the tender, almost shockingly physical “Abishag” (after Rilke’s “Abisag”, but radically reoriented by making Abishag herself the speaker). The prose poem “Scorpion” is memorable for its violence, the hypnotically rhythmical drumming of repeated phrases, the instant familiarity of the feelings it evokes and (again) the wide range of metaphorical suggestion it extracts from them. Brilliant descriptions of new buildings in London shiningly celebrate life as change. Complementing these, six ethereally lovely short poems on the remains of Roman and medieval castles on the Scottish and Welsh borders, reflect the way change implies death, but do so with a sense of serene acceptance. With its alert references to our changing everyday lives and to science, this is a very contemporary book, but it’s soaked in awareness of the continuing life of the past. A pervasive double perspective combines being completely at home in the now with revelling in the layers of the past within it, and in doing so reflects the book’s fundamental theme. “Religion for Girls” wittily plays old meanings of words and ideas against modern ones as it plays the names of old gods against the tribulations of modern life – “a local London genius for this and that”, for example, punning on the idea of the genius loci and the modern meaning of someone brilliant at something – but it ends with the homely, sublime, timeless idea of how we “go about our business following / the invincible sun from east to west”; phrasing as colourless in itself as clear water but in its place in the poem somehow lit with wonder, momentarily turning the tired crowds of London women into heliotropic flowers, and simultaneously reminding us of our utter subjection to time. At the end of the volume, “Procedure” and “Piss Flower” bring this double sense of time to its finest point where gratitude for the then and now of bodily life takes on a religious intensity that is heightened, not diminished by its subversive wit in playing the sober gold of tea against the rude gold of piss, or making a parabola of piss the stem of a flower of grace. This is a profoundly wise, profoundly humane book. More, it is great poetry.

I am grateful to the editors of The Manchester Review for permission to repost this piece, which I wrote for them.

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