christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Myra Schneider

Circling the Core with Myra Schneider

Myra Schneider’s luminous collection of poems: ‘Circling the Core’ (Enitharmon) explores remote places – of the mind, the memory and the planet. From Scottish Islands, to powerful recollections (reading the headline in Rome: ‘Kennedy Assassinata’) to the self-questioning: ‘Why did I wake this morning remembering a day decades ago?’ this books travels long distances to find simple answers. Paradoxically, these remote places are often signposts to the core – the undiscovered self.  The experiences have made her what she is, and yet her innermost being remains elusive and undefined.

She is drawn to deserted, ghostly vistas, often bordering the sea. ‘Blakeney’, the Norfolk fishing village, famous for its seals is ‘that pale strip/pulling me like a magnet.’ The sea (its ‘ever shifting glitter’ so different from ‘everyday clutter’) is a tantalising prospect – so emotionally charged; so inscrutable. It offers the promise of escape, release even. Her language is as interwoven as nature, internal rhyme and half-rhyme binding poems together: while ‘low tide water dribbles’, gulls ‘stand/on their doubles.’      

Circling The Core (Paperback) ~ Myra Schneider (Author) Cover Art

‘Nothing’, is another poem located in an undefined, shifting world, (most likely the gloom of an English winter) where we find ‘grass greying in hollows and humps/seeping into lightlessness.’ It is a disconcerting study of grief or depression – or at least its memory. It is haunted by images of absence: from the ‘vacant cradle/of delicate bones that was once a bird’s head’ to the skin shed by a snake. Landscapes become ominous, filled with significance, threatening to tip the darkness of old memories back into the present. It is one of the most startling poems in the book, but it is artfully conceived, from the acute observation of nature (‘the heavy bellied sky’) to the skilful interweaving of an actual journey with a psychological one.

There is another journey and another absence in ‘Going Back,’ where the poet revisits a childhood home – a dangerous pursuit for those who prefer to think of their past as a place that continues to exist somewhere, untouched by time. Her worst fears are realised: ‘Not there: the sandpit where sister and I invented worlds/only a garage.’ She documents the changes, but finds her mind slipping back to the past: ‘I click my camera but when I leave the present peels away.’ While the physical world changes around her – with the seasons and passing years, memory works in a less sequential way providing another parallel narrative.

There are rest-bites on this emotional journey and ‘Goulash’ is one of them: a poem with which some readers may already be familiar. It was deservedly shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. It takes the form of a precise set of instruction for the preparation of a delicious dish – a prescriptive poem somewhat in the manner of W.H. Auden meets Delia Smith. It is genuinely mouth-watering (and entirely accurate if you wish to cook along) but peppered with delightful ideas and turns of phrase: ‘bless the mixture with stock’ she advises.

The poem is almost fetish-like in its detail; almost religious and like much of her work takes you to unexpected places. Stirring the dish, ‘it dawns on you how much you need darkness’. It lives in the ‘airing cupboard where a padded heart pumps/heat.’ At first I found this and other images in the poem out of plac:e an unwelcome incursion on the otherwise tightly focus on food; then I realised this is what gives it its fourth dimension – an emotional response to the physical world.

There are links between poems and recurrent images which give the book itself a strong sense of unity and cohesiveness. Certainly the theme of darkness is prevalent throughout, as well as birds, domestic spaces (cupboards in particular) Kennedy (?), the sea, and nature in abundance. There is so much to absorb and admire it is foolish to attempt the book at a single sitting; but in both individual poems and its cumulative effect, it is collection of undeniable power.  

Possibly the finest piece for me is Bird, where the poet imagines herself as the creature: ‘I am wings/springing from breast, sweeping back,’ and elsewhere ‘See how/ I enfold head and heart in flight. Map out my hungers and dangers.’ It is almost shocking in its physicality. Many poets attempt ventriloquism in poetry, but this goes a stage further – truly inhabiting the animal, which in turns helps her discover a fully realised self.

For those looking for value in a poetry collection, Circling the Core offers plenty of it. Not only does it benefit from several ‘hit singles’ – a fistful of first prizes, many poems are multi-faceted, multi-layered things that tackle subjects many different ways; scenes are shot from several angles. Undeniably it is a dark collection, but it is tempered with humour and there are few poems that do not hint at redemption – whether in art, in food, in love, in nature or the simple promise of tomorrow. All of these poems are exercises in circling the core, where she concludes:         

‘The further in you go/the nearer you come to the mystery.’


Imaginary kingdoms in Bethnal Green

A beatific night at the London Buddhist Centre for the launch of Maitreyabandhu’s pamphlet, wittly titled (considering its length)Vita Brevis.

As it’s Valentine’s Day, Bethnal Green is full of flowers; almost every man and woman clutches a single stem or full bouquet like some sixties vision. Greeted by smiling young people at the door, the air of serenity continues down to the basement studio which is all cushions and flower print screens.

Organised by Alex McMillen of Templar Poetry, the bill also featured the precise, accomplished Myra Schneider (her recital of Forward Prize shortlisted poem ‘Goulash’ was an undoubted highlight) and the always fascinating Jane Weir, continuing her odyssey into the lives of textile designers of the early twentieth century. Her outlandish titles, breathless long lines are filled with the obscure vocabulary of dyes and textiles but are shot through with a colloquial wit which prevents them from disappearing too far into the esoteric.

I also read, from England Underwater – although managed to wear exactly the same blue flower print on my shirt as was printed the screen I was standing in front of – resulting in the odd spectacle of a disembodied head delivering the poems. I was losing my voice, but made it through to the end, trying out a new poem about meeting King Lear’s Fool – making me realise it needs more work. Funny poems go down well. Note to self – always end on a golden oldie rather than something new.

Vita Brevis by Maitreyabandhu

Maitreyabandhu’s collection is a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice and deservedly so; it is full of delicate, visionary poetry – a tiny ship made from a fingernail of bark and the shell of a walnut; an encounter with a matronly giraffe at the zoo and a meditation on the suffering of animals in Mule – a beast tormented by the heat and flies. It also features a string of prose poems – surreal wanderings through imaginary kingdoms where ‘criss-cross avenues’ are ‘lined with lemon trees and pears’ and toys hover eerily above the ground. It’s a lyrical, magical masterpiece. With a Bloodaxe collection on the way too, as I said to him after the reading – his time is now.