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Review: Deryn Rees-Jones, Burying the Wren

31/08/2012 09:05 BST | Updated 30/10/2012 09:12 GMT

'Now where?' asks the speaker in 'Three Glances at a Field of Poppies', the opening poem in Deryn Rees-Jones' new collection, Burying the Wren. This question can be asked with an emphasis on either word: 'Now where?' or 'Now where?' In either case, there is a sense of distance already travelled and a fear of being lost. There is none of the breezy continuity with which one may ask, 'Where now?'

Such a feeling - of starting again, but not afresh - animates this whole collection. There is frequently a sense of speaking to oneself or of unfinished conversations. The poems are sometimes spoken to inanimate objects or natural things: slugs, a trilobite, birds, a shrub. Many read as elegies to Rees-Jones' late husband, the poet and critic Michael Murphy, who died in 2009.

The full final stanza of 'Three Glances at a Field of Poppies' reads:

Now where? To the dark, where a seed

might sing, imagining a life

pushed into form, pure colour.

This is a collection haunted by images of darkness. Yet the dark is also a source of creativity, of light. It is in 'the dark' that a seed 'imagin[es]' life, 'pushed into form'.

Often in these poems, renewal is closely allied to loss, including the loss of self. The (wonderful) 'from The Songs of Elizabeth So', for example, reads like a series of translations from a traditional ballad sequence, and implies a rich source material - all of it imagined. Within these songs, identities are dissolved ('Your name is one/ I will not speak') as though creativity begins in re-making.

Yet the poems in the 'Elizabeth So' sequence are not as fragmentary as its title implies. Here, too, 'imagining' is 'pushed into form'. For example, the first and final poems of the sequence answer one another. Both poems rely upon the simple preposition 'and', as though the speaker will not let a conversation end:

But my hands, beside yours in the sunlight, can't refrain

from singing as I hold them in my lap

and then a thousand birds begin to rise.

They sing and fly in the singing light

and the room is suddenly full of their music.

And I do not care that they will not listen

And I do not care that they will not stop.

'Stop' is the final word of the poem (in spite of 'not'), yet the circular nature of the sequence implies that this need not be an end. Similarly, the poem seems poised between its defiant litany ('I do not care/ I do not care') and the opposite feeling; it creates 'full[ness]' out of a feeling of emptiness. Creativity is sometimes close to conjuring.

A similar dislocated sense of self is at the heart of the 'Dogwoman' sequence, after Paula Rego's paintings. These eleven poems share with Rego's pictures a conceptual strangeness. At first the mind (or eye) refuses the comparison: how is a woman like a dog?

Dog sent to bed in deep disgrace. Dog shock, piss, squalor.

And joy, dearest, tail wag. Dog rhythm, dog riff,

dog's domain and death's dominion.

The body's frame's not enough for itself,

these pale fires of horror.

'Dog' often stands in for 'I' or 'she' in these poems. The use of 'dog' as a substitute for the speaking self reminds us of our strangeness to ourselves - particularly in grief. There is a sort of 'horror' in the body's dominion in these poems: at a body that has failed or at one that continues to sleep, move, or piss.

The 'Dogwoman' poems (and paintings) also suggest that our conceptual idea of ourselves might be wrong. We think of language as a marker of our rationality/superiority over other creatures. But suppose that what is happening to me is felt physically or eludes words. If language divides me from who I am, I may be more dog than self.

The question 'now where?' is echoed in the 'Dogwoman' sequence, in a statement that 'Words now are never enough'. These poems grasp, at various points, for 'unspeakable' or 'unworded' prayer. 'Now where?' is a particularly frightening question when the distance one has travelled - the words one has used - can no longer be traced back as a reliable trail, when there is no/where (now where?) to which one can return.

Two of Rees-Jones' signature words are 'love' and 'heart'; she returns to and insists on them. In the final, title poem of the collection, we see these words anew, with all the freight they now carry. The speaker recalls, 'getting you -// death-rattle, heart-stop -/ to where the struggle ends'. She states, with new clarity: '[it] was not// the end of love. Yet love/ you've been with me enough'. The use of 'love' as a pet name becomes a gentle way to seek continuance with the beloved, to stand outside the pain of the abstract feeling that swells in his absence. This is the only possibility, it seems, after a 'heart-stop', but when the heart's pains and affections have not ended. 'Love' is reclaimed as a concrete noun, as a person, if only in memory. For 'now', at least, this is 'enough'.

In the title poem to Michael Murphy's wonderful, clear-sighted - and, at times, very funny - last collection, Half-Life (which is included in his posthumous Collected Poems), the speaker says:

[...] Seeing me not here

you turn the ring on your finger, a living

shape, to dreams in which there is no 'I'

and birdsong enunciates every blessed thing.

If anything will survive these first clear

blasts of day they are the words you'll write,

the seeds of scattered night [...]

'Half-Life' concludes with an invocation: 'rehearse... rehearse... rehearse...' It sometimes feels as though Burying the Wren has grown out of such scattered 'seeds'. The 'I' of these poems is transmogrified into other things: a dogwoman, the singer of imagined ballads, or 'a thousand birds'. And it is birdsong that survives, to bury the wren.

At the end of this collection it states that: 'The wren is noted for its loud and complex song, sometimes as part of a duet, even in the wintertime'. This book reminds us that to live (to survive) is itself a creative endeavour, a struggle against formlessness, which requires 'heart' and 'love'. These poems are a moving record of such experience, and a complex work of art.