The Sorcerer’s Arc by June English

June English. The Sorcerer’s Arc. Hearing Eye, Box 1, 99 Torriana Avenue, London NW5 2RX, UK. £7.95

John Whitworth, in his brief introduction to this book, likens the poetry of June English to that of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Stevie Smith and Philip Larkin. “Not all at once”, he concedes, to our relief. I had never read her work before, but I can’t see anything Blakean about this poet, unless he is thinking of the occasional use of gnomic quatrains. She is perhaps like Emily Dickinson in her lighter, more playful moods. There is here and there a colloquial flippancy which reminds me of Larkin, and certainly something of Stevie Smith, and maybe Wendy Cope. The influence of Stevie Smith, or the coincidence between the style of Stevie Smith and June English, is a certain vulnerability; a casual, seemingly off-hand manner of expression, and a metrical wobble:

Grandpa wanted fragrant hyacinth
and daffodils – daffodils’ yellow lament.
This war is too much black and white –
we need life’s beauty, colour, scent.

This could be more polished, but it is, I suppose, deliberately irregular: the second line is a pentameter, the others tetrameters; the first line trochaic, the others iambic. Sometimes the oddity breaks out in exuberant playfulness, as in this piece called ‘Backside Up’:

I’m a side-out, side-in, side-down, ward-up
meet myself turning-re wards-back,
ears in armpits, teeth in nostrils,
eyes in earholes, past my by-sell
tidy-un, patient-im, hardy-fool
boy who never goes to school.

I’m pudent-im, a noxious-ob,
a cal-ras, wag-scally, ward-awk yob,
a crack shot with an apult-cat
an obrill, perb-su, board-skate do-kid,
my Mam’s up-fed, me dad’s out fagged,
I’ll him dodge fore-be get I a clout,
too late, found I, dad mine’s no fool,
he’s kicked my side-back off to school.

Aside from the frolicking humour of this, it is an interesting if simplistic linguistic jigsaw puzzle; by confounding the prefixes and suffixes, she makes us think about how we glue words together and pull them apart. You may be relieved to know that this is not her general od-meth.

She has produced that rare thing: an art that might survive in a culture of commerce; a poetry stylized but accessible, original and compellingly readable. Almost every poem is a treat and has some curious quirk about it. There is often a device or mannerism that, structurally, makes the thing memorable, reminding us that a poem is an intentionally crafted construct, a foursquare fortified house of words. She is fond of interwoven motifs, which are ingeniously employed in varying contexts, which give to the poetry a nuanced and elaborate patterning, while retaining the limpidity of its content.

The themes are varied: there are Christian poems, war poems, familial elegies, dialect poems (there is a piece called ‘Hearts and Flowers’, written in dialect and rife with sexual innuendo; elsewhere she speaks of ‘clarting’ her face with foundation). There are an ample variety of forms here too: rhyming quatrains, Petrarchan sonnet, sestina, villanelle. These old forms are sustained because they are sustaining in themselves. The sestina is as good as any I’ve read, second only to Dante Gabrielle Rossetti’s heartbreaking ‘Of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni’. June English, in her poem entitled simply ‘Sestina’, has managed the form with incredible ingenuity – it feels utterly inevitable, which, given the interlocking strictures of the form, shows considerable skill and discipline. The poem is too long to quote here, and it needs to be read in entirety. It’s about how a story or a life can be predetermined from its outset, and how the end can eerily contain or return to the beginning – it is a subtle riddle, concentric, circular and therefore eternal, like the serpent with its tail in its mouth. As in the best poetry, the content is in complete harmony with the form.

It makes one wonder whether there might not be a paradise of pure form, pre-existing words – an embryonic music that seeks its release in the unparaphrasable collocation of precise verbal sound-structures, and which has its roots in the pulse of our blood. For those of us who think poetry ought to maintain its relationship with music, her poetry provides an occasionally tripping melody, as in this deceptively simple poem, which has the ghost of ballad behind its metre:

I long to fill her red suede shoes,
to be sixteen, to act grown up
in stiletto heels with pointed toes
tapping Follow Me in heel Morse code.

I envy her those red suede shoes,
their slinky heels, her slim ankles,
the mystique of her female charm
and Follow Me of clinking bangles.

I really covet those red suede shoes,
her pointed breasts and scarlet lips,
her green eyeshadow and feline grace,
the Follow Me of tiptoe-taps.

I envy her, those red suede shoes,
the blokes she pulls, the furs she wears,
her negligees and silk pyjamas:
the Follow Me that whistles wolves.

This is chosen almost at random, and, like many of the poems here, is tonally  unemphatic, skew-whiff, ruffled in its syncopated rhythms. The rhymes are somewhat jarring, and then when we expect one it doesn’t come.

There is a feigned innocence here, but the poet is worldly enough to be aware of the potential consequences of what the girl depicted is implicitly inviting; the girl herself is self-consciously a sexual siren. The ‘wolves’ that stalk her may be sinister but they are not solely culpable: the wolf may change his pelt but not his vice.

By contrast, there are, as here in vers libre, moments that are lyrical and delicate, where notations from the natural kingdom, in the tradition of elegy, are offered as appeasing and benign images:

Entombed below, Edwardian Lady,
blue eyebright, sweet mallow, bitter borage,
poppies peopling a wayside.
Tissue thin it clung where it had hung for all those wasted years,

until I, smiling, drew the veil. Water lilies,
suffused in light, petals pinking translucent pools,
illuminating subterranean caverns
where the wild weed grows.

This book is uneven in places, but then unevenness seems part of the scheme. It is a book of demotic threnodies, though there is something in the manner of her expression which salvages her, and us, from any suffocating sense of tragedy. The sestina alone makes ‘The Sorcerer’s Arc’ worth buying.

Jim Newcombe, 2005