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The Visitations

Kathryn Simmonds
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
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The Visitations is the new book of poems by Kathryn Simmonds, the follow-up to her Forward Prize-winning debut, Sunday at the Skin Launderette. As with her previous collection, an appealing voice prevails, though this simplicity is something of a veil, through which the author, with subtle shifts of language and perspective, manages to imply darker themes and worlds unseen. The tone is often simultaneously satirical and elegiac and the collection abounds with sudden moments of strange illumination: a lime tree strikes up a conversation; a life coach finds an old passport; an infant teeters on the brink of speech. Here are poems where the physical and metaphysical meet, where questions of new motherhood are set against those of faith, and the larger conundrum of how to live.

‘The Visitations is a collection of beautifully made poems invigorated by a special kind of wit… Simmonds’s dexterity, comic-seriousness and assuredness of touch are amply demonstrated.’ – The Poetry Review


Review by Oliver Dixon, New Welsh Review

Sunday, June 1, 2014

In The Visitations, there is often an insidious feeling that – like the women with children in Larkin’s ‘Afternoons’ – something is pushing her to the side of her own life. The experience of first-time parenthood can be an overwhelming one (this reviewer speaks from the far less intensive viewpoint of the father), which not only enforces a revaluation of your own personal qualities as primary carer but also precipitates a profound questioning about the nature of the rapidly developing life you’ve brought into the world – and indeed, of the muddled, broken world you’ve brought your baby into. Albeit chiefly a period of giddy joy and gratitude, it can also be a bewildering between-time for many women, sleep-deprived, thrown back onto their own resources and isolated from adult company or conversation. It can also, of course, lead to depression.

It is to her credit that Kathryn Simmonds has been able to harness the emotional and psychological extremes of new motherhood into poems intricately balancing light and shade. The fascinated renewal of perception that daily contact with an infant brings is weighted against the inevitable concern for the future and for sureties, in this case of religion, economics and relationships. The theme of parenting is set within the context of a gathering which demonstrates a considerable range both of subject matter and form, although – perhaps the litmus test of any effective poetry – this dualism proves a false one. Brief rhymed-and-metred lyrics encapsulate incisively mordant reflections, whereas long-lined free verse paragraphs exploring the page unspool meditative quandaries over personal faith and time. Both kinds of poem (and others in between) share a doubting inquisitiveness towards the world, imbued with moral insight and candour.

The word ‘visitations’ is suitably ambivalent, capturing both the blessing of giving birth and the epiphanic moments when godhead or angelic presence is glimpsed on earth. It has a further, less positive biblical meaning, of course: visitation as a curse or plague. All three senses coalesce in the poem ‘Madonna of the Pomegranates’ (based on the Botticelli painting) where the ‘sorrowing angels’ prefigure the destiny of the baby Jesus, the inevitable burden of wordly suffering that progression from childhood entails.

The poet, meanwhile, attempting to make a sketch of the painting, experiences the inadequacy of art to replicate this symbolic spiritual process:
‘I came no nearer to the figures / bound inside the circle.’

The structure of the book traces a subtle narrative plotting the course of a pregnancy and early motherhood, a gradual movement from trepidation towards acceptance. ‘The New Mothers’ early in Section One reads like Simmonds’ more sanguine and philosophical update of ‘Afternoons’, a metonymic interlinking of babies being pushed in buggies by young mothers and elderly women being pushed in wheelchairs through the ‘Matyroshka trick’ of time. Equally brooding is ‘On the Island of San Michele’, where amid a search for famous tombstones in a cemetery and ruminations on the dead, the poet’s thoughts turn to the new life burgeoning inside her:

Giving up the search for Pound, I lay my hand
   on your plot instead: you buried alive
                                         in your swirl of limbo

Despite the manifest virtues of The Visitations, the book suffers at times from ‘difficult second volume syndrome’, displaying a thinness and inconsistency lacking in its predecessor, the Forward prizewinning Sunday at the Skin Launderette. It’s understandable how this occurs for poets; a debut can be compiled carefully out of a body of work accrued over unpressurised years before a publishing deal. The follow-up must be composed and collated more rapidly, often with an off-putting weight of expectation.

‘Life Coach Variations’, the middle section, for example – a set of wry vignettes pinpricking the vanity of a man who thinks he has all the answers – doesn’t hold up as a substantial enough theme for a six-page sequence. Elsewhere, the use of skipping, triplet rhythms gives a Wendy Cope-like, light verse feel even where such poems as ‘The Visitations’ and ‘Experience’ are attempting to address some potentially lofty concepts. Similarly, the flippant opening piece, ‘Sunday Morning’, sells itself far short of the elaborate metaphysical arguments unpicking Christianity in Wallace Stevens’ modernist classic of the same name, which Simmonds must surely be alluding to.

The final word should go to the baby who is such a dominant presence in this enjoyable collection. In the poem ‘Lucid’, her preverbal mode of coexistence with the things of the world is shown to undermine the rationalising instincts of literary critics: ‘she resists meaning, / she foregrounds our part in meaning-making.’ In this she seems symbolic of poetry itself as Simmonds imagines it, a vital, intuitive grasping of life afresh, a way to ‘receive / return the world purely’.


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