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.’
‘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.’