Sue Moules, The Moth Box, (Parthian, 2013), 67pp, £7.99, ISBN 9781909844070
Reviewed by Phoebe Walker
[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]
Sue Moules’s collection has a mildly hypnotic quality. Read in chunks over the course of a week’s commuting, it calmed my journeys considerably, wrapping me in a kind of soporific bubble that managed to make even the mindless thrum of the tube a little less grating. The Moth Box is a well-chosen title; it connotes something of the sheltered, fragile and ephemeral atmosphere these poems create.
The title poem names “them”:
Scorched Wing, Tussock,
White Ermine, Marbled Coronet,
Green Carpet, Phoenix,
their intricacy marvelled at as they “heat their delicate tiled wings,/ soar into the dark.” This line is characteristic of the atmosphere of the collection as a whole; an aura of hushed contentment at small wonders surrounds it, through poems which prefer to frame the marvellous for admiration rather than penetration. Occasionally I wished that Moules would follow her moths ‘into the dark’, so to speak, although that might rather be her unironic pastoral highlighting my own flaws as a reader. It’s easy to affect fashionable indifference to quiet, earnest delight in a spring “vivid with rhododendrons”, or starlings who “preen their polka dots/ squabble like children”, but it doesn’t necessarily do you any credit.
Although this collection undoubtedly veers to the (quietly) delighted pastoral, that’s not to say it lacks bite. While I might wish that Moules’s birds didn’t have to “coo and warble”, and that bluebells don’t make quite such frequent appearances, there are fine descriptions of the patterns of skin shed and re-grown “like the iris aura of eyes”; of a father who “heeled acorns/ into empty spaces of land”. The best reflections on nature express for it both empathy and respect, and these sentiments are ingrained into Moules’s writing as surely as a seam of mineral in the earth.
The second stanza of ‘Spring Equinox’ is both simple and endlessly evocative:
and the Pagan moon
bluebells, gorse –
These lines sent me back first to the medieval Irish lines,
Shapeless bracken is turning red,
the wildgoose raises its desperate head.
Birds’ wings freeze where fields are hoary.
The world is ice. That’s my story.
And then, reading this collection in late December, to U.A. Fanthorpe’s Christmas Poems – Moules’s writing has not that quickness, but I found its unselfconscious, meditative quality, and its reticence somehow reminiscent.
Moules feels less certain in human territory, which again speaks to her skill as a fine poet of the natural world. In ‘Hay Festival’, there is artless astonishment at the people “spilling over walkways/ to hear poetry”, and the poem is bracketed wistfully with “Imagine this” and “It happened/ a day in a field/ where the earth is red.” Away from the picturesque and the sublime, self-consciousness returns and inflects Moules’s writing, which, in describing a world rather more banal and populous, becomes a little more stiff and strained. In ‘Out on the Razzle’, the speaker’s doppelgänger has been seen “pub crawling/ down the High Street/ singing loudly, out of tune”, despite the confession that “actually I was at home/ watching Eastenders, eating up/ the last of the Christmas chocolate.” The register here feels a little awkward – perhaps I’m making too much out of a slight, light hearted piece, but I think perhaps more than anything it reflects how truly nature is Moules’s medium, to the extent that a brief foray out of it into the prosy old world (pubs, Eastenders, chocolate) immediately strikes, if not a false, then a discordant note. In contrast, ‘Welsh by Choice’ expresses a startling sure-footedness “in the land of my fathers/ who are not my fathers”. It is this phrasing, which might have felt imposing in another voice, that so well expresses the depth of the speaker’s connection to the land, to “the red heart of the country”, where “[t]he green of land, oldness/ of language” calls to her with the strength of a vocation.
Elsewhere, nostalgia poems remember a “first kiss to a pillow/ […] with its clean scent/ and no response”, and a game of One potato, Two potato, played to choose “the One”, the words chanted “oblivious of history/ and the failure of the potato.” A later poem, ‘Potato’, obliquely picks up where this childhood game was dropped, with its wonderful first verse,
I worry the word’s staccato –
potato from patata –
into the starch of my being
later falling into that subdued mournfulness that hovers at the edges of so many of these poems, a warning that “blight can attack the crop/ […] It brought starvation – / a whole country unearthed.” These poems carry such a sense of the writer with them, a sense that the writer herself is, through these poems, being unearthed, not quite without pain.