Seven Ways of Reading Gillian Allnutt:
How The Bicycle Shone: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe; 216pp; £12)
It’s the Saturday Evening of the August Bank Holiday Weekend. We’re at the Greenbelt Arts Festival, on Cheltenham Racecourse. We’re indoors, in a long, low-ceilinged room. It is extremely hot. People wander in, shuffle nervously to a safe distance from the microphone, then slide quietly to the floor with their belongings. There are three very small windows, no chairs. This being Cheltenham, the room is called The Foxhunter Suite. And this being a poetry reading, we ‘give it five more minutes’ in case there’s any stragglers. It turns out there are. It’s a good sized audience. People lie down to listen. They hold hands, sip from water bottles, settle in. In the same room earlier that day there has been a film about the genocide in Rwanda Gillian Allnutt begins reading, and it vanishes. Directly relating to specific events, like all good poetry it is always contemporary, ‘about’ more than it is about. We begin reliving Rwanda:
I have given you my bones to keep.
I will sleep like the earth in you.
I’ve given you my eyes, though they are stones,
my apple heart with its green sleeves.
I’ll sing you a song like a river flowing,
give you the sea that grieves in me
like broken things forgotten.
I would stir the earth for you
like a great wind blowing. (‘Words to her Lover’)
As Gillian reads I’m put in mind of that great line of Philip Gross on Jaan Kaplinski: ‘Very conscious of the places words cannot reach [these] words create a space around them that is intensely good to be in.’ (A good description of Gross’s own genius, as it happens.) I think it is time we said the same for the poetry of Gillian Allnutt. Which is not to say the poems are cosy, or prettifying, though they do contain much warmth, and are beautiful. I think, too, of Lowell’s ‘sacramental instant’, that way of framing space around the words which means there is more being seen, felt and experienced by the reader than what happens to be on the page:
So I set
you, lastly, in the dry
on a plate,
laid with cloth of quiet
October light. (‘Bringing the Geranium in for the Winter’)
There are phrases here you could take with you into your day, meditate on them like holy scripture, or just turn them around in your mouth for pleasure: ‘cloth of quiet’, ‘companionable kitchen’, ‘October light’: a subtle but dogged insistence on music, on vowels setting up expectations of completion and release which are satisfying the way the diminishing echoes in a cave are satisfying.
I think if Gillian Allnutt were Dutch, or Hungarian, she’d be a superstar. Discuss.
Gillian Allnutt’s poems are like holograms. If you break a bit off, what’s seen and felt in the words is part of a much bigger narrative, about women, history, sex, belief, lack of belief, work and community. You hear it in the pressure of the phrasing, from what’s not said, like the best family gossip.
In cottages and in the smoke-house it is clammy. Here
the air caresses me or cuts me to the quick. And clouds come
from the edge of sea one day, the edge of hills another,
or when they come in with the nets. And once
when I was seven I was listening to the light on water, listening
to the sparkle of the light on stones
and waiting for my brother. (‘Deaf Fishergirl’)
Or in the way she is one of our best storytellers, introducing the poems lucidly and without fuss, telling tales you never knew existed, but as though you did, the weight of history burdening her tiny narratives with unspoken griefs. In this way her dramatic monologues are compelling reading, brilliant lessons in how to pitch tone and voice and longing so that you are left, not with dogma, but a living and felt experience. Can you ask for more?
Egrit, old by then.
A leg I’d never loved was gone.
I walked with a stave of thorn,
proud of my own understanding.
Tales were told in the hall,
I knew them as I knew the land,
its old light hills.
I did not listen when they talked of miracles.
I looked to my own stave.
Thorn. I thought it would not,
when the wild March wind came on,
flower white again. (‘Egrit’)
The silence at the end of the true poem. This is a book full of silence.
Bloodaxe have done a fine job in honouring Gillian Allnutt with this magnificent book of poems. You know something good is going on because Michael Laskey’s wise words nail it on the back: ‘…pushing at the ineffable, peculiarly inside language…hard-won spiritual insights…sustaining for all of us.’ (A good description of Laskey’s own genius, as it happens.) Here’s a whole poem to finish with, not by way of explanation, but to celebrate the multi-layered complexity and simultaneous directness of Gillian Allnutt’s superb craft, where voice and gender and terror and carnival and myth and hope and survival are fused in words a child could both understand and ponder on for the rest of their lives:
I was alone at the well.
I was doused in shadow and in deed.
My yoke lay on the ground, waiting.
I cannot say what I mean.
I was come upon.
I was going to carry the water to my espoused man,
Joseph, of the house of David.
First Published in The North magazine