Co­lette Bryce’s per­fect images

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - John McAuliffe

Since the pub­li­ca­tion of her first book, The Heel of Ber­nadette, in 2000, her dis­tinc­tive way with words has led to Co­lette Bryce’s be­ing iden­ti­fied as the “other” Derry poet, the “other” “Ir­ish El­iz­a­beth Bishop” (among many), the “other” new for­mal­ist, the “other” heir to Louis MacNe­ice. Her sub­stan­tial new

(Pi­cador, £14.99) shows that hers is a sin­gu­lar, orig­i­nal body of work.

The name of the book’s first poem, Line, in­cludes, un­usu­ally, a punc­tu­a­tion mark, sig­nalling to its reader the care with which Bryce ne­go­ti­ates the page. Line, es­tab­lishes the way her po­ems will first out­line and then ex­ceed their sit­u­a­tions, dream­ily de-

Po­ems Se­lected

part­ing from ob­vi­ous con­clu­sions. Here are some of the lim­its and stric­tures the speaker grew up with, ad­dress­ing the “line” she was warned not to cross: “[Line,] you were drawn in the voice of my mother; / not past Bres­lin’s, don’t step over. / Satur­day bor­der, breach in the slabs, / creep to the right, Line, / side­long, crab”.

But this line is also some­thing that leads her on and away, as she fol­lows it, “into the criss-crossed heart of the city”.

The idea of con­fine­ment is also central to Form, a portrait of a “hunger artist”, a pow­er­ful med­i­ta­tion on in­vis­i­bil­ity: “Some­one must know what I’ve done / and there’s no one to tell,” she writes, and, even­tu­ally, “I think my sight is burn­ing out. / I think it is los­ing its pupil heart. / Ob­jects are calmly va­cat­ing their out­lines, / colours slowly ab­sorb­ing the dark.”

Bryce re­mains drawn to­wards ma­te­rial that is hard to see fully but whose pres­ence, or ab­sence, her po­ems drama­tise so vividly. This book elab­o­rates a richly de­tailed and con­tem­po­rary pic­ture of the worlds she has ob­served and into which, or out of which, she has dis­ap­peared, like the pro­tag­o­nist of The Full In­dian Rope Trick do­ing the epony­mous rope trick: “Guild­hall Square, noon, / in front of ev­ery­one. [. . .] Good­bye, good-

Co­lette Bryce writes po­ems her read­ers will re­mem­ber. ‘Se­lected Po­ems’ is one of those books that you might buy some­one as a gift but end up keep­ing for your­self

bye. / Thin air. First Try.”

Af­ter en­gi­neer­ing these dis­ap­pear­ing acts the po­ems of­ten un­fold what al­most seems like a sec­ond end­ing, like that poem’s res­ur­rec­tion, “I’m my own wit­ness, / guardian of the fact / that I’m still here.”

The emo­tional punch of the po­ems is when we see their speak­ers reg­is­ter again and again that ten­sion be­tween in­vis­i­bil­ity and ex­po­sure.

Hid­den­ness and ten­sion like­wise de­fine t he po­ems about grow­ing up in Derry/Lon­don­derry, as when the dif­fi­culty with nam­ing in­forms And They Call It Lovely Derry, where her “mixed” school choir “fell apart with the grand finale, / the well-re­hearsed ‘O I know a wee spot. . . ’ / as the group split be­tween Lon­don and Lovely.”

In He­li­copters the idea of ob­ser­va­tion is more struc­tural and dis­ori­ent­ing:

high in the night

Their mi­nor flares con­fused among the stars, there –

al­most beau­ti­ful. Or from way back

over the map from where they might re­sem­ble

a busi­ness of flies around the head-wound of an an­i­mal.

Bryce’s in­ter­est in dis­guise, in shift­ing and hid­den iden­tity, emerges in a cou­ple of the crus­tacean po­ems she in­cludes, one on a lob­ster, the other called Her­mit Crab: “Minia­ture / char­i­o­teer / in the field of / her life, she hauls / her nook be­hind her, / rounds on a top­shell / larger than her own (in fact, a beauty), / stops to in­spect it, / turn­ing it over, / in­sert­ing a leg / like a pipe cleaner/ into the pearl- / smooth cham­ber.”

Bryce casts light, from odd an­gles, on what is hid­den in a se­ries of bril­liant self-por­traits, some­times with oth­ers, some­times alone and, re­cur­rently, fea­tur­ing a sta­tion­ary car.

There is a giddy de­light in Car Wash, where Bryce and her part­ner find them­selves “de­lighted by a wholly / un­ex­pected pri­vacy / of soap suds pour­ing, no, / cas­cad­ing in vel­vety waves”, so that “what can we do but en­gage in a kiss / in a world where to do so / can still stop the traf­fic.”

The gid­di­ness has an un­der­tow of some­thing else in the chim­ing clo­sure of Words and Mu­sic: “She asks me / if I love her. I wouldn’t quite / go that far. It’s just that / if she leaves me, I’m done for.”

In­ti­macy here is of­ten an in­ti­ma­tion of lone­li­ness. The un­ob­tru­sive rhymes of Self-portrait in the Dark (with Cig­a­rette) pic­ture an ex’s car, still parked out­side:

the wink of that small red light I think is a built-in se­cu­rity sys­tem. In a poem it could rep­re­sent a heart­beat or a pulse. Or lone­li­ness: its vig­i­lance. Or sim­ply the light­house-reg­u­lar spark of some­one, some­where, smok­ing in the dark.

Self-portrait in a Bro­ken Wing-mirror finds it­self on the scene of a car crash and pos­sesses the same lyri­cal power as Jim Crace’s mas­ter­piece, Be­ing Dead: “I have never been so still. A beau­ti­ful day / and not an­other car for what seems like hours / Also in the glass, bi­sected, out of fo­cus, / a streamer of road and a third of sky.”

Bryce writes po­ems her read­ers will re­mem­ber, and Se­lected Po­ems is one of those books that you might buy some­one as a gift but end up keep­ing for your­self. Her per­fect images are the start­ing point for dis­cov­er­ies we seem to fall into as we read the po­ems. Her 13- line clas­sic, A Spi­der, is just one more ex­am­ple of her sat­is­fy­ing, con­vinc­ing, light-as-a-feather progress from cu­ri­ous, slowed-down image to con­clu­sive if mys­te­ri­ous state­ment:

I trapped a spi­der in a glass, a fine-blown wine­glass. It shut around him, silently. He stood still, a small wheel of in­tri­cate sus­pen­sion, cap at the hub of his eight spokes, inked eyes on stalks; alert, sens­ing a dif­fer­ence. I meant to let him go but still he taps against the glass all Mar­cel Marceau in the wall that is there but not there, a cir­cum­stance I know.

John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He teaches po­etry at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester’s Cen­tre for New Writ­ing

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