Selected Poems by Colette Bryce review
A substantial new ‘Selected Poems’ shows that hers is a singular, original body of work
Colette Bryce remains drawn towards material which is hard to see fully, but whose presence, or absence, her poems dramatise so vividly. Photograph: Phyllis Christopher
Since the publication of her first book, The Heel of Bernadette, in 2000, Colette Bryce’s distinctive way with words has led to her being identified as the “other” Derry poet, the “other” “Irish Elizabeth Bishop” (among many), the “other” new formalist, the “other” heir to Louis MacNeice. Her substantial new Selected Poems (Picador, £14.99) shows that hers is a singular, original body of work.
The book’s first poem Line, includes, unusually, a punctuation mark, signalling to its reader the care with which Bryce negotiates the page: Line, establishes the way her poems will first outline and then exceed their particular situations, dreamily departing from obvious conclusions. Here are some of the limits and strictures the speaker grew up with, addressing the “line” she was warned not to cross:
[Line,] you were drawn in the voice of my mother;
not past Breslin’s, don’t step over.
Saturday border, breach in the slabs,
creep to the right, Line,
but this line is also something that leads her on and away, as she follows it, “into the criss-crossed heart of the city”.
The idea of confinement is also central to Form, a portrait of a “hunger artist”, a powerful meditation on invisibility: “Someone must know what I’ve done / and there’s no one to tell,” she writes, and, eventually, “I think my sight is burning out. / I think it is losing its pupil heart. / Objects are calmly vacating their outlines, / colours slowly absorbing the dark.”
Bryce remains drawn towards material which is hard to see fully, but whose presence, or absence, her poems dramatise so vividly. This book elaborates a richly detailed and contemporary picture of the worlds she has observed, and into which, or out of which, she has disappeared, like the protagonist of The Full Indian Rope Trick doing the eponymous rope trick: “Guildhall Square, noon, / in front of everyone. [. . .] Goodbye, goodbye. / Thin air. First Try.” After engineering these disappearing acts, the poems often unfold what almost seems like a second ending, like that poem’s resurrection, “I’m my own witness, / guardian of the fact / that I’m still here.” The emotional punch of the poems is when we see their speakers register again and again that tension between invisibility and exposure.
Hiddenness and tension likewise define the poems about her experience of growing up in Derry/Londonderry, as when the difficulty with naming informs And They Call It Lovely Derry where her “mixed” school choir “fell apart with the grand finale, / the well-rehearsed ‘O I know a wee spot. . . ’ / as the group split between London and Lovely.” In Helicopters, the idea of observation is more structural and disorienting:
high in the night
Their minor flares confused
among the stars, there –
Or from way back
over the map
from where they might resemble
a business of flies
around the head-wound of an animal.
Bryce’s interest in disguise, in shifting and hidden identity, emerges in a couple of the crustacean poems she includes, one on a lobster, the other called Hermit Crab: “Miniature / charioteer / in the field of / her life, she hauls / her nook behind her, / rounds on a topshell / larger than her own (in fact, a beauty), / stops to inspect it, / turning it over, / inserting a leg / like a pipe cleaner/ into the pearl-/ smooth chamber.”
Bryce casts light, from odd angles, on what is hidden in a series of brilliant self-portraits, sometimes with others, sometimes alone and, recurrently, featuring a stationary car. There is a giddy delight in Car Wash where Bryce and her partner find themselves “delighted by a wholly / unexpected privacy / of soap suds pouring, no, / cascading in velvety waves”, so that “what can we do”, she writes, “but engage in a kiss / in a world where to do so / can still stop the traffic.” The giddiness has an undertow of something else in the chiming closure of Words and Music: “She asks me / if I love her. I wouldn’t quite / go that far. It’s just that / if she leaves me, I’m done for.”
Intimacy in these poems is often an intimation of loneliness. The unobtrusive rhymes of Self-portrait in the Dark (with Cigarette) picture an ex’s car, still parked outside:
of that small red light I think
is a built-in security system.
In a poem
it could represent a heartbeat or a pulse.
Or loneliness: its vigilance.
Or simply the lighthouse-regular spark
of someone, somewhere, smoking in the dark.
Self-portrait in a Broken Wing-mirror finds itself on the scene of a car crash and possesses the same lyrical power as Jim Crace’s masterpiece, Being Dead:
I have never been so still. A beautiful day
and not another car for what seems like hours.
Also in the glass, bisected, out of focus,
a streamer of road and a third of sky.
Bryce writes poems her readers will remember, and Selected Poems is one of those books that you might buy someone as a gift, but end up keeping for yourself. Her perfect images are the starting point for discoveries we seem to fall into as we read the poems. Her 13-line classic, A Spider, is just one more example of her satisfying, convincing, light-as-a-feather progress from curious, slowed-down image to conclusive if mysterious statement:
I trapped a spider in a glass,
a fine-blown wineglass.
It shut around him, silently.
He stood still, a small wheel
of intricate suspension, cap
at the hub of his eight spokes,
inked eyes on stalks; alert,
sensing a difference.
I meant to let him go
but still he taps against the glass
all Marcel Marceau
in the wall that is there but not there,
a circumstance I know.
John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing