Emma Simon reviews The Kingdom by Jane Draycott (Carcanet, 2022)
Where is ‘The Kingdom’ – the title of Jane Draycott’s new book? The poems in her fifth collection create a landscape that seems familiar, although I don’t think I could pinpoint it on any conventional map. The title certainly evokes the UK, and many of these poems are rooted in the English countryside, its small towns and villages. Kent is definitely mentioned at one point. But if this is the UK, then it is a place that is no longer ‘united’, which seems appropriate given the sense of separation and dislocation that runs through many of these poems. Are these poems an elliptical reflection of a fractured national psyche, dealing with the upheavals and losses of Covid, lockdown, Brexit even? Possibly, but while these poems capture the strangeness of this period, they also point towards deeper, more personal losses.
It isn’t just a sense of geography that is hard to pin down. Maps don’t just show us where we are in space, they locate us in time, with borders, street names and features being erased and redrawn by each new generation of cartographers. But in Draycott’s kingdom time seems weirdly suspended, or is fluid and porous. On one hand the poems are full of contemporary details – emails, car parks, Netflix crime shows and MRI scanners. But the language often alludes to the past, reveals older roots.
The title poem seems key here. It has a distinctly medieval feel, peppered with Middle English spellings, and telling a story that feels archetypal – the Piers Plowman-like narrator, described as a ‘stranger’,
coming hyther in search of something
out of thys madnesse
something to inherit.
I am interested in that word, ‘inherit’. Draycott seems concerned with ideas about inheritances, be they personal, literary or ecological. What do we take from the past and what will we leave in the future? In many of these poems Draycott captures a moment and overlays it on the past, so as readers we have sense of seeing both at once. I was reminded of those pictures you sometimes get on websites, showing the same street before and after some disaster: how much is utterly changed, but how recognisable it still is in the small details. That sense of a life, before and after.
I realise I might be making this engaging and vivid collection sound obscure or confusing. It is anything but. These are approachable poems, expressed in lucid language, and studded with clear images. They are finely wrought, knitting form and sound patterns beautifully, but holding these very formal properties lightly. These poems aren’t showing off or trying to razzle-dazzle the reader; they are quiet and thoughtful. But, for all their apparent simplicity, there’s a real metaphysical depth to them. Many read like small puzzles that refuse to give up their meaning too easily. It’s also a collection that reads like a whole, the poems illuminating and reflecting each other, rather than being a string of individual poems held between two covers.
in Draycott’s kingdom time seems weirdly suspended, or is fluid and porous. On one hand the poems are full of contemporary details – emails, car parks, Netflix crime shows and MRI scanners. But the language often alludes to the past, reveals older roots
You could dip in anywhere and pull out a good poem, though. I was particularly drawn to some of the more surreal poems, which at times reminded me of Charles Simic. In ‘This Loveless Library’, for example, Draycott shows a similar gift for creating a strange but perfectly realised world in just a handful of lines. ‘In the bones of the disused gasometer’, starts with the brilliant observation “A ruin’s a fine thing to swim in, as air does”. This surrealness and oddity can also be seen in the opening few lines of the poem ‘Magpie’:
Yet another email from Archangel Michael,
slipped through the spam trap like a ghost
Perhaps this religious iconography invokes that more mystical, otherworldly connotations of ‘the kingdom’ which reverberate through this collection. But here the poem shifts deftly from the phone (or computer) screen into a moving reflection on separation, distance, and longing, and on the power and limitations of art. It ends with this stunning sentence:
All I want for my breakthrough
is to crash the force shield of this screen
and be there with you, like the magpie
and the still life, grapes painted so naturally
it tore the canvas with its beak and desperate claws.
Other poems in the book also engage with the subject of art, and its potential ability to console and transform, or at least mark an experience. Titian, Virginia Woolf, Apollinaire and Derek Jarman all make an appearance, and many of these poems deal with their response to illness, plague, a premonition or the shadow of death. Absence, too, has a strong presence, and many of the poems frequently address to an off-stage ‘you’: gone, but where to? Answers remain, like much else in this book, both elusive and allusive, never fully within our ken. And the archetypal settings and landscapes, the questing and questioning narrators, help to infuse the poems with a richly symbolic feel. Are we really sitting in an airport departure lounge in ‘The Quiet Friend’? Draycott perfectly captures that sense of time being on hold, whether it is waiting for a delayed flight or carrying on through unnamed griefs.
The Kingdom is moving, intriguing. It’s a place I know I will keep returning too, to lose an hour or two
There are many beautiful details in these poems, both in the language itself and in the images Draycott creates. For example, I loved the incantation of ‘legendary’ place names: “Stormreach, / Neverwinter, Shadowguard” that appear in the poem titled ‘Neverwinter’, the way it maps out an imaginative space that seems both strange and oddly familiar, like a fairy story you once heard. Draycott’s skill and imagistic power are evident in the short poem, ‘Outside the Columbarium’. (I googled columbarium – it’s a structure for the reverential and usually public storage of funerary urns.)
Outside the Columbarium
For years to ourselves we’d seemed
golden, or fiery red, even green,
all blue being banned by decree,
for saints and the serious, not for you or me.
But the long view shrouded in cloud reveals
that eighty percent of our earthly being is deepening
water, that storms wheel over our heads, wild force-fields
named after girls, unfettered and free,
strange furious birds like feathered machines
raining stones on our chambered turbulent dreams.
I had no idea how blue we would be.
The Kingdom is moving, intriguing. It’s a place I know I will keep returning too, to lose an hour or two.
Emma Simon has published two pamphlets, The Odds (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) and Dragonish (The Emma Press, 2017). The Odds was a winner in The Poetry Business International Pamphlet & Book Competition. Emma has been widely published in magazines and anthologies and has won both the Ver Poets and Prole Laureate prizes. She works in London as a part-time journalist and copywriter and has just completed an MA via the The Poetry School and Newcastle University. Her debut collection will be coming out with Salt Publishing in 2023.