Kathleen Bell’s debut volume is a thing of beauty, a joy forever, or at least until the global temperature rises beyond the point of no return. Her poems are poised, delicate and occasionally devastating. The book consists of three sections, the second concerns memory, the third magic.
The first deals with the musings of medieval spinsters on matters such as church, childlessness, beatings and scars from harvesting the corn, a kind of earthly stigmata. These women bear their sufferings with a grim fatalism. Their incessant struggle to reconcile what they are told by the priest or the lord with their own experience is expressed in voices both lyrical and authentic.
The final poem in this sequence, ‘La Dame à la Licorne,’ is a delight. It is based on six tapestries of the same name woven in the style of ‘a thousand flowers’ at the turn of the fourteenth century. Five of the pictures represent the five senses, the sixth is something of a mystery. The brilliance of this poem lies not just in Bell’s riff on the pictures of the lady with her unicorn but also in the way she subtly relates it to the poems that have gone before, where her women are fluent in their senses but flounder in their minds.
My favourite in the collection is ‘Palais des Beaux Arts’ which revisits Auden’s magnificent ‘Musée des Beaux Arts.’ It strips the original of its calm beauty revealing the horror beneath. Wherever Auden’s landmark poem goes in future, it should be accompanied by this one.
Each page of this well-produced book is an entrance to an exquisitely constructed little world, whether it is a painting by Vermeer or a card trick. Bell takes us down the side roads of history, showing with great tenderness and truth, what was missed.
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