Thursday, 6 February 2020

Review by Charles Bennett of "Longship" by Jessica Mayhew



Contemporary poetry sometimes feels a daunting and precarious place: the ground can give way suddenly, leaving years of wide reading, disciplined writing and artistic values feeling like outdated preconceptions which have no longer have validity. In the face of this multiverse – which might be more effectively labelled contemporary poetries (such is the bewildering variety of writings which now adopt the title of poem) it is a joy to welcome a wise, thoughtful and yet surprising collection from a gifted and reflective poet.

There are good reasons to buy and read this book. Here is someone who knows how to build a poem. The formal lightness of touch is exemplary – giving the poems a shape on the page as well as in the air. Often playful – a series of couplets often ends in a mischievous or profound triplet – Mayhew’s sense of timing, as the meaning of the poem unfolds and develops in its travel down the page, is a real joy. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the journey of the poem – and was delighted by the formal variety in which Mayhew shows how open form poetry always needs some subtle references to more formal elements to achieve its purposes: in the way a jazz improvisation of a classic melody both reinvigorates and refreshes the original. Free verse is, a Eliot reminds us, never really free at all – and it seems to me that poetry must display some kind of formal structuring or surrender its claim to being a poem. There are two, possibly three moments when her formal sensitivity deserts her – but prose poems like ‘Mistletoe’ and the uncomfortable long lines of ‘Cuttings’ only go to show how brilliant the rest of the collection is.

In its interplay with Norse mythology the book achieves an overall unity of purpose. Fortunately, the poetry is never over-reliant on our own knowledge of these myths; and the helpful notes supply solid support. A dancing and delightful collection, full of profound music and strong women, which echoes in the ear after reading, like chilly birdsong heard in a deep fiord.


About the reviewer
Before establishing himself as an academic, Charles Bennett was the Creative Director of Ledbury Poetry Festival, and has acted as writer-in-residence for Wicken Fen. Additionally, his work with choral composer Bob Chilcott has seen him hailed as a memorable and mesmerising librettist. He lives on the edge of Northamptonshire & Leicestershire with his wife, daughter and dog. His latest collection is Cloud River, published by Cinnamon Press. His website is http://www.charlesbennett.net/ 

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