A review for The Journal 2006

Burning the Heartwood

By Janet Sutherland, 2006. ISBN: 0-907562-88-4 Shearsman Books Ltd, 58 Velwell Rd., EX4 4LD www.shearsman.com
86 pages £8.95 plus p/p £2.75 (from Amazon)

I had not wanted to like this collection. For ‘one’ it’s too damn expensive at over 13p a page (That equivalent would have my current novel retailing at close to £50.00 a copy!!!) and for ‘two’ I read the rear-cover blurb by the poet Gillian Allnutt and went ‘Ugh!’ then spat on the floor next to my computer (There’s quite a moat there currently as I’m writing lots of poetry reviews). Ms Allnutt speaks of Ms Sutherland as ‘an attentive poet’ one whose poetry exists ‘where sounds and syntax will not break the silence in which something can be said.’ ...whatever the hell that means. Pompous drivel or what?

I also did not want to like Ms Sutherland on a personal level because not only did she work for Relate but she also worked as an ‘Adult Education woodwork tutor’! I could imagine her in her denim overalls hefting an axe to sculpt a totem pole which would phallically symbolise the spirit healed through counselling… without even having the decency to wear fishnet stockings and suspenders under her work clothes (OK personal perversions and prejudice emerges here, but my own Relate counsellor told me that it was good to spit it out – the moat deepens).

So, I dipped my metaphorical pen into a well of metaphorical sulphuric acid and opened this very slim, very expensive, Arts Council of England sponsored collection at the very first poem in the book, the first of 73 offerings. The poem was called Hearth, it was brief, I read it, I reread it, I dwelt on lines like; ‘Sometimes the ear listens/ without thought’... and thought to myself (with my brain); do ears actually think? If not what’s the point of referring to an ear that ‘sometimes’ ‘listens without thought’? …and I moved onto the following line; ‘Unbuttoning the heart...’ …hearts with ‘buttons’ then? Pre-war hearts presumably? Hearts built before they invented zips? This was going to be easy, I would dissect this pretentious rubbish ruthlessly... but you know, my Mum used to say that sometimes the whole really is much greater than the sum of the parts. So in deference to Mum I stepped back and looked at the poem as a whole:

  H e a r t h

  The hiss of flame before earth

  Sometimes the ear listens
  without thought

  Unbuttoning the heart
  we hear the rain
  from a wet coat
  leaping and cracking
  on stone

The title Hearth conjures an image, that single word seems to me to be slightly archaic, almost quaint, it existed long before Aga cookers’s and central heating... the first line of the poem adds to this sense of the past, an almost timeless space; ‘before earth’ and this ethereal nostalgia is expanded upon with the image of the rain being shaken from a coat so that the drops crackle on a stone floor. A stone floor, not, methinks, modern crafted trendy Yorkshire slabs at £120.00 a square yard but these (in my mind) are rough chunks of Welsh slate in the kitchen of a worker’s cottage. The ‘whole poem’ conjures for me, a haunting image, like a rough and intimate charcoal sketch... and I enjoy the way the poet teases with words like ‘earth’ and ‘heart’ which reflect their presence in the title; Hearth. So I have to reconsider a horrible possibility; maybe, initially, my ear listened without thought. A further horrible possibility emerged; that I was going to be denied the pleasure of disliking Ms Sutherland and her poetic offerings... maybe…

I turned the pages at random and read a poem about kissing a stranded mermaid; ‘flies will be sipping from her lips/ sand in her gritted eye’, and I read another tender and humorous love poem to a spider; ‘i have left you four flies/ three are in the freezer next to the joint of beef/ the other is wrapped in christmas paper/ tied with a pink ribbon’, the poem ends with ‘p.s. i love you’ Oh cripes! If she can be tender and thoughtful about spiders and has a wonderful sense of humour I might even begin to like her! Heaven forbid!

Anyway, there was still a lot I hadn’t read and so I did a single read through the whole collection which took me all of twenty five minutes and concluded that most of the shorter poems are snapshots; not snapshots of events so much as snapshots of events captured in phrases that linger, tempting the reader to consider whether or not they are wise phrases or pseudo intellectual crap. An example of the latter is In the hospital grounds which is about newly blind people learning Braille and young trees that tell lies; sort of Patience Strong trying to appeal a little higher up the scale, trying to climb above appealing to maiden-aunts, homespun philosophers and faith-healers. The poem doesn’t work, it annoys actually, but gently so, as does another offering in similar vein; When he had cut up her clothes. Both of these seem like poems written by someone who hasn’t really lived but wants you to believe that they have. Wearing my ‘I-might-actually-like-this-stuff’ hat I tried hard to find excuses for these intruders but gave up; after all even Wordsworth made the odd clanger (‘You see a little muddy pond/ Of water, never dry,/ I’ve measured it from side to side:/ ‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.’ {from; The Thorn). BUT; the intruders are in the minority and anyway I concede that it might be me; maybe they’re not imitations of Patience Strong but that they are just so staggeringly perceptive that my mere male brain fails to comprehend their enormity. Maybe…

 A poem which reflected the title of this collection moved me deeply with its simplicity; Felling the apple tree is decidedly not Patience Strong, it is simply observed profundity in that it toys with the inevitability and yet the sometime beauty and dignity of death and contains within it also an underscored celebration of life and living. And what if the poem does seem to have been fed by another powerful poem of Michael Hannon’s, Blessing & Dispersal, which contains these lines: ‘Friends, let’s light a good fire today,/ burning the heartwood first.// This life won’t last forever.’ Sutherland’s poem still stands on its own two feet as do the vast majority of Ms Sutherland’s offerings herein when I read each of them as a whole. Ugh! Did I say that? ‘the vast majority’? Yes, I guess I did; what’s more if it wasn’t so annoyingly expensive I would even urge you to rush out and buy a copy, as it is I recommend you order it from your local Library (I refuse to have anything to do with ‘Lending Resource Centres’) and when you have read these poems and hopefully enjoyed most of them, sit down and write a letter to the Arts Council of England asking them how it is that a collection of poetry sponsored by them, a mere 86 pages, still sets a prospective purchaser back close to £12.00 including p/p. This work needs and deserves a wider audience but if you can buy substantial collections by Wordsworth, Bukowski or even T S Eliot for under a tenner, why would you bother?

© copyright Alan Corkish 2006