published by Bloodaxe Books
review by M. Dunlop
editor, The Poetry Point
(note to self: I am not necessarily well positioned to either interpret or confer any judgement upon this latest work of Penelope Shuttle, “Sandgrain and Hourglass”. However, the fact alone that this book has inspired me to tackle the task, and distract myself from my own musings/lexicographic tussling with the cosmic order of things is, I feel, an accreditation in itself as to the quality and worth of Penny’s latest collection.)
“Sandgrain and Hourglass” can in some respect be said to be the second volume, or part two if you will, of an individual voyage around and beyond the life and love of Penelope’s late husband, the noted poet Peter Redgrove. It is a journey through memories, grief, wounding and healing, that also stops along the way to examine other minutia of life, literature, language and the eccentricities of the personal. These topics – while often given great value – of the personal becoming historical, the tearing and rending of love into its remaining parts of flesh and recollection, become a culminating overview of how what has been filters through into what is, how the past finds its balance in that ever renewing moment called the future.
This is where books, and collections of poetry have always entered the world as their own. Fixed positions, available to strangers, and what Shuttle provides is a great cross section of personal love, the injurious exclaimation point of death at the end of life, not so much for the dead – for we know not their thoughts beyond that last breath – but for the remaining lives lacking the familiar, the collaborative partnership, the conversation and the beautiful work of art that is -rather perfunctorally- called a ‘relationship’ in our world. Shuttle reminds us of the romance, not of Mills and Boon, but rather of stray hairs in the bathtub, and the parade of books on the shelf, muddled and mixed in ownership and interest, that strange connection made between brains that is not only about mating and reproduction but through which some invisible bond evolves or instantly threads through, a thing we call love – a name given so casually and simply which we can then move on from all to quickly, a word valued for its ellusive secrecy a word more devalued than improved by constant declaration.
“To stop myself thinking about all the days and nights
we’ll never share,
I keep myself busy as a maternity hospital
nine months after a catastrophic city-wide power failure.”
(excerpt from ‘The Harper”)
It’s fair to say that these lines tend to detonate as you pass over them, they surround you with an atmosphere not of death and grief, but of an engine stoking itself upon the life force, anger filtered through the intensity of finding metaphor, because whatever the meaning of life and death, it is always forever somewhere else, glimpsed in peripheral blinks at best, never pinned down. Shuttle brings to bear this magic of life and birth into this ‘catastrophic…failure’, and conveys the hustle and bustle of distraction that is often the only recourse to managing or coping with that loss – the frenetic busying too-ing and fro-ing unable to sleep, with some disaster to hand, some crisis in play, in what is it after all a place of birth, a kind of factory outlet of life popping maternity, alluding to sex, evoking the ‘breeding like rabbits’ taking place in a “catastrophic city” blanketed in night. The result is not the emergency room crisis of an earthquake, but the nurturing engagement with life, babies plopping into the world one after another, no time to think. This is the metaphor of labour to grief, pain in life equals pain in death, and for the living, a time of un-desire, a time of busying distraction; cleaning for the sake of cleaning, busying to be left alone, the time when the world seems mad with sympathy, when walls of work are erected around a snippet of personal space, a space that must be constructed in which to feel, to isolate and contain the feelings that one doesn’t always want to share, indeed the loss is of sharing itself, and that is perhaps the hardest abscence to cope with. Grief plunges back into life like a comet, blazing with rage as it enters the upper atmosphere of outside compassion, wanting to suck up all the oxygen of words so no one will have breath to say “is there anything I can do?”
Where all the envelopes containing “in deepest sympathy” cards would combust before ever dropping through the letterbox.
“…and every morning,
round about now,
Grief pads in,
electrodes at the ready,
or will it be those splinters of bamboo
under my fingernails this time?
He likes that one…”
(excerpt from “The Stove”)
Here, Grief is the shadow behind the busy catastrophe, something hung outside the door of reason, of logic, a mad consuming metaphysical presence manifest when the mind has space to inspect its wounds. Preoccupied in its little cell, the griever obsessed with its own Gaoler. The greatness of love has become a sore, pain pierces the wound, rubbing salt in, fingering the bones and nerves beneath. Getting under the skin, full metal jacket notwithstanding. You can’t elude the metaphysical monstrosity for long, at some point exhausted from the efforts at distraction, screams can be heard from distant cells, the nearing steps, the clink of keys, the all too familiar sounds of a torturing grief that has replaced love.
To begin this, I said ‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’ was a companion piece to a previous collection “Redgrove’s Wife”, that collection in fact deals with the death of Shuttles husband and her father. However, where RW is a kind of evolvement of wake, it is less visceral in some ways, ‘Sandgrain’ pokes into the raw loneliness, it seeks out, it engages, it wrestles like Jacob with the angel. It also knows there is no trophy of resumed inner peace to be won, grief and love is ongoing, a marathon.
The countless grains of sand pour through the feminine symbol of time, one by faceless one, and each of them might be a book like this. The death of a poet, the love of a poet, the lives of a poet.
Sandgrain and Hourglass gives a much needed voice to that inevitable journey in every life – a pilgrimage through the death of a loved one.