Friday 30 October 2015

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Degrees of Twilight" by Maggie Butt

According to Shelley, "poetry ... may be considered as the bridge thrown over the stream of time" - and there is certainly something peculiar to poetry about its relationship to time, something which marks poetry out - which, maybe, is part of its essence. Whereas painting and sculpture are naturally static forms, with no obvious fourth dimensions (though, of course, there are ways in which that stasis is subverted or complicated); whereas prose narrative fiction, at least in English, is naturally a linear form (in that it's read in a linear way, and set out as such, even when linearity is brought into question); and whereas music is necessarily experienced in a linear, almost narrative way; poetry is different. Often read in a non-linear way (you read a poem, then perhaps re-read it, and your eye does not necessarily move smoothly across the page, left to right), poetry is perhaps the most successful art form at capturing the complexity of time, at throwing a "bridge ... over the stream of time." Clearly, narrative prose fiction does have a fourth dimension - but, as I say, that time element assumes, more often than not, a basic linear, chronological mode, even where that linearity is disrupted.

Poetry can do something different: poetry, as Maggie Butt realises in her brilliant new collection, Degrees of Twilight (London Magazine, 2015), can simultaneously hold in its hand the present, past and future. In Butt's poetry, the reader can "listen to the future: rain-rocked, lake-like" precisely because "nothing divides the waters from the waters" - past, present, future waters all intermingle in her poems. Butt's poetry hears voices "calling down the years" from the past, watches as the present "all goes on," and foresees "futures latent as a roll of undeveloped film."

There are poems here which, to use her own words, are "forward-facing" and ones which are "backward-facing," watching the "open country of the past / spread itself far as the eye can see." And there are a lot of poems which are both: in the remarkble poem "Time Travellers," for example, "time zig-zags like a running man avoiding bullets," encompassing, as it does, scenes from a whole personal history; in "New Mothers," the mothers cry not just for present pain, but also for future "falls we can't womb you against: / the bully teachers, failures, phone calls in the night / beyond our arms," for which the mothers "paid up-front in tears"; in "Variance Analysis," a dull meeting "in a windowless room" is happening simultaneously "while the first day of spring unfurls outside; / and you are motorbiking scented country lanes / absorbing this year's deficit."

This is the poetry of simultaneity, of synchronicity, as multiple pasts, presents and futures co-exist in the same poems, sometimes even same lines. In the final poem, "Wish," the narrator poignantly attempts to reach towards a kind of Shelleyean timelessness, whereby, as Shelley himself puts it, "time and place and number are not." Here, future, past and present - the "years scampering by"- all finally seem to dissolve in the face of the narrator's wishes: "let there ever be you / let there ever be you."

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). His website is

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