Wednesday, 1 April 2020
Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Collision" by Claire Walker
The sea is everywhere in Claire Walker’s beautiful new pamphlet of poems, Collision, haunting its geography, its characters’ voices, language and dreams. Here, ‘brine rises to the surface … / it coats our skin, our hearts,’ and ‘it creeps like a vine / across the map of this town.’ Sailors wear sweaters threaded with ‘waves, … [and] salt hides / in the Arran twists.’ The sea ‘calls to them like a lover,’ and ‘at night, she nestles in their heads, / whispers in waves.’
And if the sea’s voice is female, so too are the other voices which Walker recovers from the sea’s histories, its romances, legends and shipwrecks. These all-too-often-overlooked voices do not tell macho sailors’ yarns, but rather the stories of women who ‘swam / against history, made the coast’ – of mothers, lovers, mermaids, ‘The Fishwife,’ and the groundbreaking nineteenth-century palaeontologist Mary Anning.
In the short sequence of poems dedicated to her, Anning becomes both a powerful counter-voice to a male-dominated history of palaeontology (‘they … try and erase me’), and a displaced representation of the female poet. A kind of poet-scientist, Anning collects symbols from the sea (in her case, symbols of evolutionary history), and then marks them, writes on them: ‘my fingerprints are spelled out on flint / letters chiselled in the lines of my nameless bones.’ Walker’s description of Anning in the poem ‘She Sells Seashells’ might almost stand as an allegory of her own method:
Now picture the girl.
I gather the coast; hidden art waits
for my fingers to unfold rocks.
I line my finds out on a table,
little fancies I’ve cleaned
to show the shape of all our pasts …
Limestone presses messages
on the seashore.
As Anning knew well, though, these messages from the seashore are never straightforward: ‘most would laugh me off the [cliff] edge,’ she says, ‘claim a hoax.’ Messages, symbols, images from the sea are ambivalent, complex, over-determined, culturally and historically loaded, sometimes even laughable.
Walker understands this, too – the way in which age-old sea imagery can overwhelm the real, drown it in signification, as it were. In ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,’ symbolic language has become just that – a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby ‘real’ seagulls seem to have been overtaken by their representation: ‘tired / of our assumptions’ they ‘are living up to their reputation.’ The symbolic has almost erased the real. Similarly, in ‘A Tattooist’s Mistake,’ sea imagery takes on a life of its own, overwhelming the human subject:
You ask for a mermaid,
so that is what I give you.
My needle draws her slender back,
arching to surf that nibbles her skin.
Hair red and long, floating
like crimson seaweed out against water …
After you leave,
you spend the night beachcombing –
she, supple in the twist of your arm.
You return at sunrise, hollow-eyed,
ask me for starfish, seaglass, oysters;
the entire spill of an ocean.
The language of the sea – its imagery, cultural weight, symbols – cannot be contained; it ‘doesn’t pack neatly into crates,’ and ultimately overwhelms the tattooist, artist, poet, palaeontologist. Voices, selfhood, identities, whether male or female, are all too easily ‘lost to the fetch of a wave.’ Nonetheless, as Walker’s evocative poems demonstrate, the attempt to swim against the tide, ‘against history,’ in itself remains worthwhile. Even if the sea will always, in the end, overwhelm representation, drowning out all other voices, something beautiful might be salvaged in the attempt. As Walker puts it, ‘something in us admires the wreck.’
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is director of Everybody's Reviewing. His books include the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.