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Erato

Deryn Rees-Jones
ISBN-13: 
9781781725108
Format: 
Paperback
Publication Date: 
Monday, June 3, 2019
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Named after the Greek muse of lyric poetry, Erato combines documentary-style prose narratives with the passionate lyric poetry for which Rees-Jones is renowned. Here, however, as she experiments with form, particularly the sonnet, Rees-Jones asks questions about the value of the poet and poetry itself. What is the difference, she asks in one poem, between a sigh and a song? Erato’s themes are manifold but particularly focus on personal loss, desire and recovery, in the context of a world in which wars and displacement of people has become a terrifying norm. 

In the narrative of transformations that unfold, the invocation of Erato also carries with it a sense of errata and erasure.  As stories and ideas are repeated, and recurring imagery -- of fires, bees, birds – is continually reframed, we are asked to replay, rethink, rename. How do we step out from the ‘perpetual loop’ of trauma? And how do we find a way of processing painful change? Here, bewilderment in the face of ongoing historical tragedy is countered by the Rees-Jones’s close and careful attention to immediate or remembered experience, and the importance of the body, whether this is lying awake at night with a sleepless child, the felling of a backyard tree, walking in Paris observing the encampments of refugees, or the dreamlike conversation she has with the radio about bombs and the use of drones.  

Erato includes elegies for family members and close friends, including an impressive and moving long poem ‘I.M.’. Also included here is the autobiographical ‘Caprice’ in which Rees-Jones explores with musical abandon ‘the scribble-mess’ of self, and the ‘grainy, atomized emotion coursing through in middle age’.

Throughout Erato there is a compelling sense of continued curiosity, of thoughtful questioning, of questing for truths.  The author’s background in the classics, her immersion in modern poetry as well as a deep interest in modern art, all combine to influence the essential quality of this work. 

"Here is the poet as rhapsode, an open channel for giddily overlapping streams of grief, desire, bewilderment, awe and rage." – Josh Cohen

"Deryn Rees-Jones shows us that in the right hands lyric is the sharpest, subtlest and most devastating instrument we possess." – Sasha Dugdale

"...a forcefield book, a fierce and beautiful thing." - Vona Groarke

REVIEWS

Review by Jonathan Edwards, Planet

Friday, November 1, 2019

Deryn Rees-Jones is among Wales’s most exciting poets; a new book by her is always an event. Erato picks up where her last collection, Burying the Wren, left off; the book is a sustained and deeply moving treatment of the subject of grief.

At the heart of the collection is a sequence of compelling poems. I was taken with ‘Drone’, a surreal narrative. The speaker and her lover are ‘lying naked in a small, badly-lit room’, while a man ‘whose job it is to program drones’ is questioned on television about the ethics of his work. During the poem, the speaker begins having a conversation with the man on the television, the use of drones seems to become a metaphor for whatever is threatening her lover, ‘the glass in the window shatters’ and time seems to rupture. Emotional trauma is linked to big changes in the world in a way that reminded me of Sarah Kane’s play Blasted.

If the use of prose gives a sense that Erato is engaged with the best way of finding a poetic form for grief, this is deepened by the textual erasure and redraftings in these poems. ‘Líadain and Cuirithir’ is a sonnet in which every line is struck through, while ‘Cell’ offers two versions of the same poem. ‘Erratum’ redrafts the collection’s earlier poem ‘The Owl Husband’ as prose ’13 Numbered Fragments Keeping Barbara Hardy in Mind’ obliterates sections of the text with solid black chunks. In this way, the writer seems to grapple with the question of what it is to write effectively about grief, heartbreakingly attempting to clarify and hold on to memories.

The collection’s use of prose and elision also means that the beauty of the lyric poems here is emphasised by contrast. ‘Autumn Leaves’ seems to combine the formal dexterity of writers like Kathryn Simmonds and the attitude of blues singers, to beautiful effect. Similarly, the long poem ‘I.M.’ is a masterpiece of love and grief, in which the music of ‘Blackbird, linnet, / songthrush, robin’ interlocks with the music of language. The poet tackles grief directly, often addressing the one who is lost, as in this deeply felt section:

I cannot show you the English gardens,
now you are gone, not the magnolia tree,
breaking extravagantly open, not cyclamen,
narcissus or delphinium, the fiery tulips
with their mouths’ soft spillage,
a liturgy of spring that steers to summer –
foxglove, rose, peony, geranium –
as I sit here with our son.

When reading work like this – in which the writer faces the most important and inarticulable human experiences and wrings beauty from them, dealing directly with her own experience of grief and, in doing so, connecting with every reader’s experience of it – one is left with a feeling that is so common when reading Rees-Jones. It is a feeling that answers the question I started with, of what poetry is for, and which, for all the ways in which Erato’s textual experiments build doubt and disruption into the text, sing with certainty. It is a feeling that can best be expressed with these four words: poetry is for this.

Review by Siriol McAvoy, Gwales

Friday, September 27, 2019

This fifth collection by Deryn Rees-Jones is an invocation to Erato, classical Muse of lyric poetry and songs, whose name means ‘lovely’ or ‘beloved’. Yet in the poet’s hands, Erato’s lovely face is pixelated, blurred, transformed into her shadow guise: goddess of error, errancy and erasure. The collection’s narrative arc explores how ‘the scribble mess’ of self is constituted ‘by what we love’ and thus, inevitably, through slippage, failure and loss. It also offers a precise, darkly funny exploration of ‘middle age’ with its divagations, its difficult movements: ‘What stepping in / and back and on / is this, this middle age?’, cries the voice of ‘Firebird’.

The theme of error is registered through traumatic repetition: the ‘face blackened to a shroud of bees’, the ghostly ‘nucleus of / shadow’ that the speaker seeks to ‘run my hands / across’ are images that recur in surreal, painterly fashion (Rees-Jones acknowledges her indebtedness to artist Paula Rego). But bereavement and ‘heartbreak’ are seen, not just as terrifyingly empty spaces, but as passionate states in their own right, electric in their disordering/reordering of time and self – and thus, potentially generative.

Like Rees-Jones’s previous works, Erato is centrally concerned with the body: poems take in a loved one’s amputated limb, the bodies of saints; observed bodies, the political body; bodies as forensic materials or artefacts. Probing the strategies by which corporeality is erased, monitored, and understood in the contemporary, technological world, it asks: how do we think about, memorialise and experience, our body, others’ bodies?

This poet’s quirky experimentalism serves her aim to bend and break the limits of the lyric, in order to link the personal with the planetary. Melding documentary reportage with lyrical reminiscence, she includes prose-like pieces structured like sonnets, poems approximating song lyrics (‘Autumn Leaves’ echoes Leonard Cohen and Jacques Prévert’s ‘Feuilles mortes’), poems that use strikethrough and blanking-out techniques to foreground the erasure that is usually hidden in digital print.

Environmental destruction hovers over the collection, the felt shadow (like middle age) of an imperceptible tipping-point. ‘Mon Amour’ depicts the flickering black-and-white scenes of the film Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Marguerite Duras, hinting at desire dreamt in and through environmental devastation; an elderly family member on the point of death is imagined poignantly as ‘a lost child or a sea-fox in a blazing world, that lone seal on a stone.’ At times, the collection is almost unbearably urgent (it even witnesses the Notre Dame fire of April 2019), half-overwhelmed by what the author calls ‘the siren … [of] the modern world, a … sound of danger and distress’. It bravely explores the possibility (impossibility?) of poetry in a world where everything is in a state of assault, everywhere a conflict zone, asking, ‘What was the difference between a sigh and a song?’

The bricolage feel of the poems – their ‘sound debris’ – matches the ‘bright hard LEGO pieces that never seem to have a chance to be stuck together’ depicted in ‘Palisade’. Yet while this is a collection proper to the plastic age, it retains an intense sense of kinship with the natural world: the ‘Courtship’ sequence directs a keen eye to the love-making practices of birds, signalling in its slow rhythms and imagistic mirroring a continued belief in the possibility of bringing together language and world, lover and lover. Tracing the twists and turns of Erato, Rees-Jones offers a collection that is giddily disorienting, incandescent, bleak – and yet, at heart, graciously optimistic.

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

Review by Heather Treseler, PN Review

Friday, September 20, 2019

There is a startling moment in Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in which his clinical mask cedes to something like emotional honest with his reader: ‘Why this process […of grief] should be so extraordinarily painful is no at all easy to explain in terms of mental economics,’ he observes with exasperation. Yet he concludes, ‘It is worth noting that this pain seems natural to us.’ Freud marvels at the sheer cost of mourning – its outsized role in our affective lives – but concedes that grief is part of the tax of being human.

Mourning is turned into an engine of music in Deryn Rees-Jones’s Erato. The accomplished poet’s fifth book channels the Greek muse of lyric poetry to explore love’s repatriations: how it returns us to old countries of desire, to latent territories of need, despite the ways in which time and task continually force us forward. In prose poems, sonnets, clever erasures, sharply edged lyrics, and blues stanzas, Rees-Jones varies the mode of her melody, drawing as ably on post-modern techniques as neo-Romantic imagery.

This ambidexterity is rare. The poet, moreover, balances the high polish or protean craft with attention to the ideological frames around the lyric moment. She assimilated the paradox that so puzzled Freud to render grief, in its ‘natural’ excess, alter idem. These poems are not affirmative pabulum, but songs from the midlands of mid-life, trawled from the tears of things. In ‘Autumn Leaves,’ the speaker addresses a late husband, reporting on would-be successors:

One carried a canvas
instead of a flame,
one lied to his wife

and then lied again.
One wept for his mother
and called me her name:

they’re not you
And the autumn leaves
lift me up like a song

and carry me through.
Your sunburned arm slips in
to the words of another,

But that’s not you, that’s not you,
in my middle years, darling,
passing through.

Slender tercets borrow loosely from the structure (point, counter-point, and ironising turn) of a blues stanza in a tragicomic catalogue of lovers whose affections are sullied by artistic need, outright deceit or Oedipal confusion. In her note on this gem, Rees-Jones acknowledges its connection to Jacques Prévert’s ‘Feuilles mortes,’ but her poem remakes the old song into something new: a love elegy that is a conversation with the dead and a comedic rebuke of the living whose literal baggage (a canvas, a mother, a web of lies) prohibits sincere connection.

‘I.M.,’ a sequence of thirteen line ‘disappointed’ sonnets, as the poet terms them, are at the actual and figurative centre of the book. Each shortened sonnet also varies in its placement of the concluding couplet, destabilising the reader’s sense of pattern and pairing. The second sonnet begins:

An old love is a kind of promise.
In the first rush of new unholy orders
there’s a wish to make a body limitless.
Now here’s a longing for my breast
to meet a mouth, for you again to slip your hands
inside my heard and with a turn of limbs
to bring a rhyme of colour to my cheek.

Delicately, the poet allows the reader to inhabit an uncanny space: the intimacy of lovers’ practiced liturgy. A memory of ‘unholy orders’ is held against its absence.

Ten prose poems – a third of the collection – serve as exoskeleton, positioning the lyric interiority against worldly incursions. The first, ‘Mon Amour,’ begins with the casual brutality of a bureaucratic request: a university email ask faculty to document all ‘human remains’ on campus, specifically ‘bone, teeth, hair, skin, nails, saliva (i.e. collections for  DNA analysis)’. The absurdity of biometric data gathering is just one aspect of the phantasmagoria of the everyday that she reverses, judging politics against the body.

In ‘Palisade’, for instance, a father calmly suffers from the incremental ravage of diabetes, and the ghost of his diminishing body reappears in ‘Gardens’ as the speaker examines the ‘stump’ of an uprooted tree. If psychoanalysis cannot calculate the ‘mental economies’ of mourning, poetry can reckon with the conflated traumas of biological, ecological, and political breakdown. Later in ‘Gardens’ the speaker observes:

The Home Secretary was moving tanks onto the streets. We
lived in a Hostile Environment. Now water was halting pro-
ceedings in the House. It was spilling through the ceilings of
the Chamber in huge drops like thought-bubbles. Notre Dame
was in flames.

Rees-Jones provides a means – a subjective register – for hearing what ‘circumstances of sound electrifies the heath, / open up the dark.’ With admirable exactness she charts the existential bewilderment that frustrated Freud, his narrow paradigms lacking the dimensionality of these unflinching poems.

Review by Rupert Loydell, Stride Magazine

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Deryn Rees-Jones' Erato is a devastating return to form.

The core of the book is a number of prose poems, spinning out and away from grief but with absence as a centre. The texts focus in on the momentary, on remembered details, and move by association and emotion as much as time or narrative. In between are more individual poems, sometimes brief observational lyrics, including a sonnet sequence and a poem after Rimbaud.

'Imagine a landscape folded into a room' is the opening line of 'Cell', and this for me is the nub of these poems, memory, ideas and images folded up within the room, or self, of the poem. There is a surety and lightness of touch here, with the author re-presenting her memories but leaving us to make a choice of how to respond to them. The poems are certainly melancholic and moving. 

   Concentrated and erotic, or something

   Unbeautiful
                                                              Or something
   in the spaces between?

she writes in 'Fires' when discussing the work of Julia Kristeva, as the text moves from parental intervention and concern, to Virginia Woolf's lighthouse, and on through Freud and Elizabeth Bishop, through Kristeva to Dylan Thomas. Yet this is no academic treatise, this is the literary world the poet inhabits, it's as natural a progression and digression as bird watching and gardening are elsewhere. It also summarises how this poetry is working, leaving room in 'the spaces between' for the reader.

Erato finds its author balancing the fact she remains both lost and at home in the world, mixing the vivid and luminous present with the past. Her nostalgia is controlled and shaped, her eye alert to the foibles of memory and grief. This is a wonderful, lyrical collection, full of bright language and love.

Review by Andrew McMillan, Poetry Book Society

Friday, June 7, 2019

Much is often made (quite rightly) of the exciting and energetic new voices which emerge into poetry each year. But what of the voices who have been working at deepening, strengthening and expanding their art over many years? Deryn​ Rees-Jones’ new collection is at once a firm continuation of her singular poetic project and a lightning strike which takes both her work and us as readers into utterly unfamiliar territory.

I’m reminded of what Ian Duhig said of Rees-Jones’ Burying The Wren (Seren, 2012), that it was a collection which marked “an important development in her work”; the same could be said of this collection and yet development seems too mild a word. Rather a departure, a rupture, a new beginning.

This is a formally varied collection; long prose explorations side by side with Haiku-like glimpses. In the first of the prose pieces, indeed the book’s opener, ‘Mon Amour’, Rees-Jones writes: “Yet all landscapes I held within me seemed to be receding”. That seems key to unlocking this work, something long held within, finally let go of, and something new emerging in its place. That opening poem ends with a paradox, that dual-sense of both an ending and a new beginning is what makes this collection so exciting and moving.

Something I knew was only beginning.

Something, I knew, was at an end

There are poems here of nature, of birds, of the body; poems which are tender to the wider world, not just to the physical self. There are poems which are small and intimate and, in ‘Walk’ in particular, poems which speak to the world and its geo-political state. This is a book which is always looking towards something new, the old ways, the old forms, the contended lyric, is not enough anymore (or so this book seems to suggest) and so there is a reaching out, of the line, of the image, in order to try and grasp something which might be just beyond reach, but which the poems will keep trying to move towards.

I wanted to be light, light as air.

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