Patricia McCarthy reviews Metastatic by Jane Lovell

Taken from Agenda Poetry Reviews

Jane Lovell is a master/mistress of the lyric with wonderfully apt, incisive images culled often from the natural world around her. She has yet to have a full collection published but in this pamphlet, Metastatic, she is at her best. Here, the lyric is clothed in urgency and is used to powerful effect in articulating the traumatic situation of her husband facing a rare cancer diagnosis and them both wondering if he will survive. Hence lyrical language is juxtaposed, very carefully it has to be said, with hospital terminology, resulting in very moving poems that are never sentimental or over-dramatic. In fact, the poems are dignified and quiet as they deal, at subtle angles, with the mortal diagnosis. She contrasts effectively the spoken with silence, or different kinds of silences, and light versus dark. The frequent use of alliteration and sibilance highlights the altered perspectives induced by shock when even time, as we know it, goes awry. In the poem ‘Birdsong’, ‘Even the cup in your hand/ assumes a strange longevity’… ‘The world has shrunk away,/ moves in different realities;// our life has shucked its skin,/we are already ghosts’. This contrasts with the normal world: ‘Sometimes it seems it’s just me’ and those birds// all that bird song, so much life’. This dislocation in a world of changed perspectives continues in the poem ‘How do you do the right thing’ –
when landscapes are untied, hedges slide into oblivion, fields flap untethered, their edges fraying to dust’…
Horizons are threaded through the poems, coming closer and closer in their shrunken world. They ‘now go all the way to the horizon/ and stop/ our whole world is here’, for there is ‘nothing beyond// nothing beyond/ but the man who reads blood/ circling numbers in a scree of figures’, this man whose word ‘draws the horizon/ into a knot’, along with bones and carcasses, ghosts ‘of gone-days’, ‘of hedges’, ‘a ghost owl’, a ‘ghost garden’, and the patient himself who fades ‘to shadow as we walk’. Yet this is not a Gothic world; it is a natural one with birds to bless, and listen to as examples of fortitude: ‘that blackbird chortling regardless/ of his dried dead young’, a fallen plum tree, juniper, a hare, a kestrel, a thrush, owls. And the scraps of solace that her husband keeps ‘like a talisman’, the solace ‘in the altered step of time’ uplift even momentarily.
Throughout the sequence a lot ‘spills’ and is ‘pinned’ – as if the life-force is leaching away or being held down by diagnosis after diagnosis from screens and slides. The repetition of these words, plus the repetition of many lines in poems, and the same image at the beginning and end of a poem, like bookends – such as the horse at the beginning and end of the poem ‘Equivocal’; also the first and last poem in the pamphlet focusing on ‘day’ – ‘Ten days’ at the beginning and the hopeful ‘new day’ at the end – add to the symmetry of the whole, and increase the haunting effect. In the last poem where even the thrush sings in a minor (sad) not major key, Lovell subconsciously defines what these poems are: spoken/ in the quiet dark’. How well-spoken they are indeed.
In the overall doom which holds the unwanted clinician’s words, Lovell articulately chisels words from silences – and this is surely where the best poetry lies in all its urgency, intensity and meaning. Lovell dares these spaces with great empathy, sensitivity and delicacy, and the control she achieves makes these poems all the more harrowing and moving.
This is necessary poetry, grace-given, where ‘the trees are angels, quietly/ unpicking strands of destiny’ and it is hoped that these angels will continue to do just this for Jane Lovell as her poems evolve with a surety and sparseness that few poets today ever manage.

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