Bethany W. Pope, Undisturbed Circles, (Lapwing Publications, 2014), 67pp., £10.00, ISBN 978-1-909252-82-0
Reviewed by Neil Fulwood
[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]
Bethany W. Pope’s new collection contains six sonnet sequences, all of which are built around double-acrostics. The shortest, ‘Three-Legged Crow’, consists of three sonnets augmented by 5x5s (a form of Pope’s own creation which can best be thought of as expanded haiku, with five lines of five syllables). ‘Fox Cycle’, ‘The Metamorphosis of Physis’ and ‘The Tower’ are traditional sonnet crowns, while ‘Double Helix’ pulls the tricky stunt of swopping the continuity of the acrostic from side to side. The book’s centerpiece, ‘The Labyrinth’ is an heroic sonnet crown (i.e. fifteen sonnets, the last of which takes each of its lines from the first lines of the fourteen sonnets preceding it) which is again built around a double acrostic; each sonnet is prefaced by a short prose-poem and followed by a 5×5.
If all of this sounds like literary showboating or the application of technique for its own sake, fear not. Pope’s craftsmanship, impressive as it may be, is always subordinate to visceral content and emotional fearlessness.
‘Three-Legged Crow’ is a good place to begin, for its playfulness as well as its brevity. “Crow is a God. Crow is not a God” reads the poem’s subtitle, and the first sonnet reveals the crow as a trickster. The ostensible story Pope tells has the crow making creative use of a stolen piece of plastic and the launch pad of a sloping roof:
Tin roof (rain slicked) becomes a slide for him.
Over and over he sits snug in the
Tiny sled, launching himself off with a
Harsh, happy croak at this new kind of flight.
Buñuelesque imagery: strange yet somehow gleeful. Then you work out the acrostic and read the 5×5 and the context changes; a dark undercurrent emerges. The next two sections reimagine the crow as, respectively, a hero and “a small, impetuous God”, but again meanings yielded up by the sonnets’ construction challenge and subvert the surface reading. The overall effect is as if Ted Hughes’s Crow had got himself a punk haircut and started playing about with the puzzle box from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. Yes, I know how demented that comparison sounds. But Pope’s poetry has that effect: it provokes the reader’s imagination into letting go of the guy rope and freefalling through a skyscape of altered perceptions.
Once you’ve taken a short trip (in both senses of the word) with the crow, don your stoutest walking boots and lose yourself in ‘The Labyrinth’. Exploring memory, psychology, persecution, religion, guilt, redemption and eventual self-knowledge across 285 lines of poetry, Pope merges form, content, imagery and mythology to achieve moments of dream-logic juxtaposition that are often startlingly beautiful and conceptually terrifying at one and the same time. The opening sonnet, on the narrator’s birth and formative years, is a particularly gutsy example and is worth quoting in full:
I was born in North Carolina, the
Wastelands laden with live-oak. Dens of fox
And wolf littered the loam. My blood can’t stop
Speaking the language of this wild. A girl
Birthed in this soil carries it for life. No
Ordinary span will follow, for her.
Remember the foul house next door where the
Necrotic lady was found, babies from
Maternity wards clutched in her arms. They
Arrived home with her in pickle jars. Small,
Dear creatures she named and kept for years. I
Expect juice from those jars, the hellish bog
They languished in, seeped through me with each breath.
Open the door. Take the turn to the right.
The “turn”, of course, also refers to that traditional to the sonnet form. Here, it wrenches the focus suddenly and brutally from rural nostalgia and empathy with the natural world to horror-movie imagery. The reader is still reeling from the pay-off as Pope shoves them through the first door. Again, perceptions have altered. Something real and unspeakably horrible is being grappled with in the heightened reality of the poet’s imagination. It’s like Alice through the looking glass as if Alejandro Jodorowsky had hijacked the narrative.
The spattering of movie references in this review are not accidental, by the way. Pope’s writing has an intensely visual quality. Her use of imagery is strong – often unflinchingly so. Her ability to drill down into the depths of the id and face full-on what she dredges up speaks of an inner strength as well as a creative one. Undisturbed Circles builds on the stylistic and psychological achievements of her previous collection Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books, 2013) whilst striking out ever more confidently in her use of form. What for other writers would be mere gimmickry is integral in this outstanding collection to an overarching aesthetic. So many poets falter under the strictures of form; Pope soars.