Mel Pryor, Drawn on Water, (Eyewear Publishing, 2014) 32pp, £5.00, ISBN 9781908998590
Reviewed by Wynn Wheldon [Originally published in LP5, December 2014]
I defy anyone to find serious fault with this collection of twenty intelligent, intelligible poems. Doubtless, there are readers of a misanthropic bent who will find it altogether too likeable, and there are those who prefer the riddles of obscurity to Pryor’s relatively plain spoken responses to life’s little (actually pretty big) mysteries.
The title, ‘Drawn on Water’, takes Keats’ nib and refashions it into a brush. Nature and our responses to it, including all the big stuff – birth, love, death – is not only transient but shifting, a nice difference, suggesting not just mutability, but also opacity:
…the mind is a shifting thing,
can change like alder drawn on water
There is a sense, a benevolent suspicion, that many of these poems are written against that transience, in order to pin experience, to fish it out and dry it on earth. For those lyric poets – so many! – amongst us, that sentiment is, if we are honest, the purpose of our poetry.
For Pryor, dry earth is existence itself. The poet moves – “first things first” – out of the primordial, pregnant waters of ‘Heritage dive’, in which her daughter has “pinched the DNA / of a goldtail angelfish” and her daughter’s father is “over there, inside the big bald flounder”, to a picket-fenced garden in which the daughter explores (“constantly moving, nomadic”) the world her parents have “rooted” themselves into. Whether it is “stromatolite time” or “fifteen centuries of aisle” that make up the poet’s “personal narrative”, time is often the measure in these poems. “When did time erase them?” the poet wonders of old lovers in her “heart’s previous lives”.
In the lovely ‘The Waterboys play ‘The Whole of the Moon’’’, the poet remembers a carefree drive among the Italian lakes – “open top and a glaze of alcohol” – and
We would never love like this again
And this memory touches, gilds with a kind of sweet melancholy, a return journey years later. The poem ends with an absolute peach of an analogy:
I hold onto that slim translucent memory
the way the day will sometimes
hold onto the moon in its blue sky.
Having suggested the earthing of these poems in time, and given the title of the collection, it might be best to recognise how often the liquid world is invoked: “the world we swam from”, “the puddled swing”, “tired waves”, “a pool of shade”, “my dream of a Northumberland shoreline”, returning, in the last poem, to the “alder drawn on water”.
The poem ‘Back’ may be taken as the most typical poem in the collection, in which most of the themes Pryor is interested in find some kind of shape. A small naked child is in the bath and leans forward to reveal a ‘map’ – perhaps a birthmark at the base of his spine. The poet is reminded of the “precise moment” when this “map” was formed, when early in her pregnancy, while consulting a real Ordnance Survey map on a walk in the Lake District, she “felt a shift of love / inside me”. Childhood, memory, pregnancy, discovery, the umbilical relationship of individual to the world, and mystery: all these themes mingle in this deceptively simple poem (that is, again, full of water).
Mystery, because throughout this collection there is a sense of wonder that gives its poems their tenderness.
When she comes close to his sweet expectant
face, she thinks how little he knows of her,
how little anyone knows of anyone else.
In ‘Rose’ she beholds her daughter “as if she was made by stars and the sun, / not me, not us”, and “can only guess at her language, / what tiny kingdoms, myths / and creatures, what mysteries it holds”.
As an antidote to all this mystery and love and so forth, there is ‘The little slug woman’, which is really quite nasty (although perhaps it is just sad), but again it is a poem that plants humankind thoroughly into the natural world.
Most of these poems are written in free verse, though often with consistent stanza lengths and rhyming, sometimes so discreet as to be – like that Italian moon – translucent. There are (and this sometimes seems de rigeur for contemporary poetry) plenty of words I had to look up: stromatolite, mussitation, vernixed, girandole, ormer – but looking up is good for you, and generally the language is clear cut.
It is hard to write so straightforwardly without recourse to cliché (or clever-clever anti-cliché, for that matter). Pryor’s subjects are as old as poetry, and we all recognise them, but her experience of them is very much her own. Drawn on Water is fresh, accomplished, and, best of all, enjoyable.