Title: Are You Listening?
Author: Gill McEvoy
Publisher: The Hedgehog Poetry Press
Reviewer: Mandy Pannett
‘This collection traces the story of a grief which, as P.D. James said of her own grief, instead of diminishing, grew more intense with the passing of time.’ With these words Gill McEvoy introduces her poems in Are You Listening? –a title and a theme to startle and make one pause. A key word, I think, in this description, is ‘trace’. We are not invited to explore the relationship with a husband who has died many years before – ‘three times fourteen years’ – and though we are shown unremitting grief, as readers we can only experience the emotion at a surface level, as an outline, a pale copy, a delicate tracery. There are depths in these poems, huge depths are hinted at, but they are concealed with care.
The language of the first poem Clean Break sets the tone of the collection. Here is the ‘thud’ of the coffin ‘hitting earth’. Out under the Moon has the same air of bleak finality. The moon is like a bare electric light bulb offering a ‘bald light’ on black roofs. No edges are softened, the night is sharp and the cold moon ‘feels nothing’. Neither, in the numbness of grief, does the narrator. The night sky with its stars is a recurring image in the collection but there is no time for romantic star-gazing. The onset of illness is the moment when ‘all the stars went out.’
These are bleak poems poignant in their stark clarity, their pure simplicity. I defy anyone not to be shaken to the core by the final poem, When God Made Time. But grief in this collection also has a gentler, lyrical, mystical side. Stolen made me shiver with its supernatural elements when, on a hot and sleepless night in the hospital, the narrator saw and imagined the sound of a horse and rider ‘high-stepping on the road’, an incident denied by the nursing staff who could not convince the poet who knew that ‘In that wide and empty dawn/they came for you.’
Two other beautiful, lyrical poems are to do with the colour blue. They Say the Last Colour We See is Blue asks ‘Before the light went/what did you think of?’ – another question, another poem directly addressing the husband. After a list of possible images we are left with one that is a ‘perfect blue’ – the forget-me-not, a flower with connotations in its name. Derek Jarman’s Film ‘Blue’ is one of my favourite poems in this collection. I love the images of ‘blue dancing in the rain-logged field’s flood,/ and blue the cold stars whirling in his head.’ This is a poem of silence; the ‘deep blue hush’ of death.
As mentioned, Are You Listening? brims with repeated images and themes. Particularly emotive are a number of poems where birds play a part. Notes from a recorder ‘fly, one by one’ into the thatched roof of a cottage, a tawny owl calls and talks to its mate, a bird-watcher finds it ‘too windy today for birds’ and has to observe clouds and passers-by instead. One of the loveliest poems is Glass Bird in a Shop Window where the narrator stands outside the shop on a day of freezing snow, gazing and gazing at the glass bird, attentive only to her thoughts. Here is my favourite extract:
Surely the maker of this bird is
one whose winter months are lived
among deep silences of snow,
who understands the blue and purple
bruise of folds among the drifts,
the strange transparencies of ice,
the way light toes on it
a fragile dance?