Two Collections by Jenna Plewes

Two Collections by Jenna Plewes
Salt (Indigo Dreams, 2013), £7.99, 65pp, ISBN 978-1-909357-12-9
Gifts (CreateSpace, 2014), £5.00, 38pp, ISBN 978-1-4953944-0-9
 

Reviewed by Phoebe Walker

[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]

These two collections by Worcestershire based poet Jenna Plewes are, for the most part, unchallenging. When reviewing, I often find myself coming back to the question of what the active reader is looking for in a poem, or a book of poems – for myself, most of the time, I want words images and idea that I can butt my head against, worry and gnaw at. At other times, and for other people, I know that poetry may be a go-to for comfort reading; a refuge in something euphonious, calming and undemanding. Plewes’ poetry falls into the latter camp, and no hint of condescension should attach itself to that designation.

Although these collections are blandly presented (something of the Google stock-image suggests itself about the covers – though you can hardly blame a penurious small press), the contents provide just that small refuge – sanctuary is probably appropriate for what Plewes is trying to achieve – that can be, in certain moments, what is most needed. Salt’s blurb describes its poems as “deceptively simple”; I don’t think the deceit is very great, but their simplicity is clear and winning, and can certainly be celebrated. The criticism here is that the poems themselves, in both collections, struggle to stand out individually, but slip past the reader too easily, succouring but afterwards indistinguishable.

Salt, as you might guess, is an extended meditation on the sea and life beside it. Plewes is good on capturing the moods of the water, the way that “muscles ripple under the skin of the sea” and “[w]aves suck and surge/ […] tongue the gaps between broken teeth”. If there’s nothing very startling about her imagery throughout the collection, it at least never feels stale or overwrought, but instead conveys the poet’s depth of intimacy with her subject, one that has resolved itself into a quiet, equivocal respect that neither blusters nor blandishes. The sea’s salt oozes into the life that surrounds it, its “mist turns bracken to rust” and “far inland gobbets of foam/ catch on the bushes”. I like this evocation of pervasion, bespeaking the deep, personal spell cast by certain places and affinities, which worm their way almost into the bloodstream. For example, far from the shore,

[…] in a hospital ward
a bright wren of a woman
in the end bed
gazes over a sea of bedcovers
to the horizon.

Salt bites deep. At points, the poet undergoes a quasi-metamorphosis into sea itself. “wrapped in a liquid skin/ lulled by the suck and surge”, while ‘Scoured Sand’ likens the poet’s mind to the movements of tides:

Low tide is best
a glorious emptiness
washed clean of words
scoured of clogged idea

[…]

the calm shores
of my mind

If the boundaries between mind and sea are a little more tangible elsewhere, it takes little to blur the two, the water’s moods and movements echoing the slow human dances of joy, fear and grief from poem to poem, and beautifully imagined in the image of ‘Albatross’:

A solitary gull quarters the oceans
snagged with dreams.

Gifts maintains the calm tones of Salt, though perhaps loses a little of its sense of ambivalence. Described as a “spiritual” collection, these are a slim group of devotional Christian poems. I can imagine them brightening acts of worship, private or public, but there is little here to stir or shock. Poems told from the perspective of Mary and Joseph (“married his girl/ pregnant, and not by him”) provide a little stylistic variety, but they are scarcely original and, to me, unexciting, lacking the luminosity and fire I associate with the best examples of devotional poetry. I found the most memorable phrase in Gifts in ‘The Pieta by Michaelangelo’, where

Unseen, beyond all pain
the pulse of God is gathering itself
to burst the crust of death
and set us free

That ‘bursting of crust’ is a fine, redolent image, but the final line seems to dilute it (I wish it had been left to resound alone) and that is the case with other poems here – there is a patness to them that, to me, becomes a little insipid – for all that this is a later collection, it feels less sophisticated than Salt, and is perhaps not meant to be read in the same key. These are clearly deeply-felt and personal sentiments, which could, perversely, explain why there is just a slight hint of strain, not present in Salt, in communicating these sentiments in writing. Regardless, Plewes proves herself in these collections to be a poet of quiet power, astutely sensitive to a welter of temporal and spiritual moods.

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