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The Bramble King

Catherine Fisher
ISBN-13: 
9781781725078
Format: 
Paperback
Publication Date: 
Thursday, May 9, 2019
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The Bramble King is full of darkly resonant tales, ingenious parables, curiously haunted rooms and palaces, and beautifully observed images of the natural world. A prolific, popular and prize-winning author of fantasy fiction, Catherine began her career as a poet, and Seren published her early volumes: Immrama, The Unexplored Ocean and Altered StatesThe Bramble King is Fisher’s first collection of poems since 1999. 

The book opens with a series dedicated to imaginary planets, each with unique properties: sometimes sinister, such as ‘Hades’ where “the sky flames all day and all night”; or as unsettling as ‘Babel’ where “there are voices everywhere, singing, crying and no one listens”; or as humorously surreal as ‘Gravitas’ where “each arm takes centuries to rise”.  The next three-part poem is a narrative focused on the life of a girl who seems to live in a corridor of glass and is defined by her elusive image in multiple reflections. 

Characteristically in these poems, the protagonists attain a mysterious status such as ‘The Daughter of the Sun’ in her lonely tower. Sometimes they are directly borrowed from myths: of King Arthur in ‘Sion’s Seat’; of characters from the Welsh medieval tales: ‘Gronw Pebyr’ and ‘Branwen’ in ‘From the Mabinogion’. The hauntings are mostly in modern guise: ‘The House to its Owner’; ‘The Flat Where the Cinema Was’; ‘The House Where the School Was’. A former tenant is evoked through the remnants of his uncollected mail.  

There is a thoughtful series of poems inspired by artwork. The author’s experience of life-drawing informs her eloquent poems about the work of Edgar Degas, the great 19thcentury painter renowned for his draughtsmanship. ‘Post War’ recounts an anecdote of Wynford Vaughan Thomas who recalls his delight as he came across masterpieces hidden for safety in an Italian monastery at the close of World War Two. 

The natural world is also vibrantly observed and most often to a purpose, to recall a specific set of human thoughts and emotions. ‘Frost’ is full of precise observation and casts an appropriately chilly spell on the reader. Pre-history is also wonderfully imagined in ‘Prehistoric footprints’ and the ominously eerie nature of a landscape pervades in ‘There are Places in the Downs that Turn you Back’.

Seren is delighted to be publishing this beautifully thoughtful and wonderfully entertaining collection of verse by Catherine Fisher, both her fiction fans and poetry readers will find much to enjoy in The Bramble King.

REVIEWS

Review by Caroline Clark, Gwales

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Catherine Fisher is well known as a prolific novelist of fantasy and dystopian worlds, but she began as a poet and here returns with a most intriguing collection which tempts us with new worlds and re-imagined fairy tales, as well as capturing moments from childhood and her response to season, landscape and poetry itself.

In the first sequence, ‘Imaginary Planets’, each one is a world which might expand to hold a novel. ‘Circe’ draws on both sci-fi and myth to give us a space-travelling Ulysses failing to escape his enchantress, while in ‘Planet X’ the mysterious sphere is both a hidden giant and something unacknowledged in a long relationship.

The second sequence, ‘The Shop’, builds on the author’s childhood in her grandfather’s wallpaper and paint shop, but the apparently mundane contains hidden memories – fears and the confusion of the adult world seen ‘in slivers’ overwhelming the child.

There are quite a lot of birds here: starlings, including Branwen’s unlikely messenger, the shadowy marsh birds of ‘Temenos’, the squarks of ‘Babel’, a delightful reference to her latest novel in ‘The Clockwork Crow’ (which imagines the bird’s meticulous, magical creation), and ‘Owl Pellet Poem’. The latter is a very original image for the nature of a poem and the process of understanding it. The pellet contains ‘all the stuff that hurts’, ‘what she preys on,’ ‘What she’s destroyed for this’. This goes beyond poetry to a writer’s awareness of how she feeds on all her experience.

There are several poems concerned with visual art, particularly how it can capture movement. In an unsuccessful life class, ‘nothing is alive’ – the vital spark doesn’t jump the gap to Adam – but Degas, in ‘Dancers’ can ‘still an art gone in seconds’. A film loop can repeatedly reproduce movement but is somehow cruel, trapping its subject.

Another group focuses on places and their haunting legacies. A new tenant imagines the last one from his accumulated mail, a vanished cinema’s soundtrack haunts the flat which replaced it, a returned pupil remembers details of a lost school building, the living seeming to haunt the reconfigured place. ‘Prehistoric Footprints’ were made ‘very long ago’ but run ‘to a land no longer viable. / Forests under wave.’ – lines which have the ring of warning as well as memory.

Fisher uses the archetypes of myth and fairy tale in several poems: the imprisoned ‘Daughter of the Sun’ perilously escapes her dark prison; in ‘The Building and the Boy’, the boy is any hero from Theseus to Childe Roland but his enemy is the building itself, which keeps its secrets, disarms and imprisons him. It is, perhaps, the unheroic weight of everyday life that crushes the heroic? The final sequence – ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’ – takes its principal imagery from the Sleeping Beauty story but uses it to describe a period of illness and treatment: in ’Blood’, the spindle is identified with a canular, the prince ‘hurries towards you in his whitest scrubs’, the charmed sleep is drugged or a coma. In the title poem, ‘The Bramble King’, the protective hedge becomes a threat trying to harm the sleeper: ‘His embrace kills or cures you.’ ‘Maybe you’ll never know which.’ (Both cancer and chemotherapy?) The biblical reference to a bramble king is to one who was a bad choice – like Aesop’s King Stork.

The final poems, ‘On Waiting’ and ‘St Blaize 2017’, draw together several themes – hospitals, Degas’ dancers and haunted rooms, landscape and poems as yet unspoken. I hope there will be many more, both stories and poems, from this fascinating writer.

 

A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

Review by Thomas Tyrrell, Wales Art Review

Friday, June 21, 2019

What happens when a writer of fantasy turns to poetry? For J.R.R. Tolkien, it was another form of world-building. His short lyrics found their way into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, while his long unfinished epic poems became a part of the intricate history of The Silmarillion. Neil Gaiman, rather endearingly, prints his poems alongside his short stories, mixing sestinas and pantoums with twisty magic-realist tales.

For Catherine Fisher, the poetry forms a parallel career to the children’s fantasies she’s more famous for, and The Bramble King is her fourth book of verse from Seren. Her method, it emerges in the reading, is distillation: like dried figs or fairy fruits in syrup, this slim collection contains the essence of four or five different books, carefully preserved and put aside.

We open in a playful mood with 'Imaginary Planets', a six-poem sequence that treads in the footsteps of Italo Calvino’s more extensive 'Invisible Cities'. Strange and surreal, planets like Gravitas and Babel reconnect the boundless possibilities of science fiction with the marvellous islands encountered by legendary adventurers like Sinbad, Mael Dúin and St Brendan.

The next sequence, 'The Shop' is a condensed memoir of Fisher’s own childhood, living above her grandfather’s paint and decorating shop in Newport. To the mundane surroundings of Gwent, Fisher brings a sense of haunting mystery rivalled only by Arthur Machen’s memoirs of neighbouring Monmouthshire. Obscure rooms and cupboards hold memories of the war-torn past, and mere scraps and offcuts of wallpaper become the very stuff of poetry.

 

Slices of wallpaper, curliques and scraps

deep as the leaves in an autumn heap.

 

Some of it sticky with paste, some torn,

textures of artex and polystyrene,

 

velvety swirls of flock, the William Morris

birds, the crunched brown forests.

 

The poems that follow are more miscellaneous, recurring to that haunted childhood but also gesturing elsewhere, to the arts, the landscape, the changing seasons. The coherence here diffuses: Fisher is at her most distinctive when she assumes the serene voice of the storyteller, tempered by the sensuous of Angela Carter’s retellings, and becomes less memorable as she tends towards description rather than narration. I approached the diptych 'From the Mabinogi' warily, feeling like Seren’s previous collections have picked much of the meat off these bones, but the poems here succeed by taking a new point of view: Gronwr Pebr fashioning his spear ’in a gloria of sparks’ rather than yet another Blodeuwedd soliloquy.

The tension regathers in ‘The Building and the Boy’ and the six-poem sequence ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’ which seems to embody an interest in a Sleeping Beauty-style narrative where the adversary isn’t the evil fairy or Disney’s Maleficent but the castle itself or the thorns that hedge it in, a haunted place, an emblem of wilderness rebelling against human agency. It’s hard to escape the notion these themes are biding their time, waiting to escape into a future novel. Fisher hints as much with one of her last poems, which shares the title of her Tir na n’Og award-winning novel, The Clockwork Crow. Here the focus is not on the novel’s Gothic mysteries, but on the Promethean creation of the crow itself.

 

It will turn its head, speak one word.

Will rise, jerkily at first then

smooth, a shadow swooping under the ceiling

beating against the window,

 

till he opens the glass

and lets it out, up into the stars and it flies

till it’s a dark thing against the galaxies

and then is gone.

 

The ending is all the more effective for knowing how the poem evolved into the book, and I laid the collection aside hoping soon to witness the ontogenesis of one or more of the embryonic stories here contained.

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