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Review of Keats Lives by Moya Cannon

Keats Lives by Moya Cannon (Carcanet Press)

Many gems weaving the present with myth and ecology – yet sometimes mundane

Myth and ecology are the drivers of Moya Cannon’s fifth poetry collection, Keats Lives. Comprising 42 poems, this collection comes four years after her last, Hands; the title poem a meditation on how the pilot has all flight passengers ‘in his hands’, which I felt suggested little more than a FaceBook e-card passed around willy-nilly.

Planes feature in Keats Lives too, as a vehicle from which to explore grief. In ‘At the end of the flight’, cabin crew announces they are sharing the flight with the family of a ‘fallen hero’, leading passengers to applaud. As the dead soldier’s two sisters and father disembark: ‘further down the plane/… we heard the sound of grief/grinding three separate tunnels/through their days.’

Grief doesn’t so much grind as flow in ‘Shrines’: ‘….to let grief flow/like dense tresses of water/over a weir’, neatly demonstrating Cannon’s timely use of grief-stricken alliteration and imagery.

Winter View from Binn Bhriocain’ is the perfect choice to open the collection, forcing the reader to slow down and be subsumed into its richness: ‘zinc riffles…’, ‘frost-smashed quartzite’, and a ‘palette of hammered silver…’. However, foretold from this first piece is Cannon’s habit of close repetition, which I found distracting; the palette of hammered silver is followed on the following line by ‘grey and silver…’ ‘In the Textile Museum’, line one of stanza two refers to ‘a tapestry tunic…’; line three offers ‘a woman in a short tunic…’.  The opening stanza works a treat in offering a palpable or pleasing tactility to the imagery: ‘These/the cloths of Egypt: a baby’s silk bonnet padded and lined and trimmed’.

Whilst some of the repetition may be distracting, Cannon can excel in personalising the ancient in order to bring it alive, but it is somewhat clumsily done here: ‘I will never meet the weavers/but I remember the swish and click-click-click’, before drawing us into a childhood memory when she hears her mother’s ‘treadle sewing machine’.

Burial, Ardeche 20,000 BC’ offers a deep poignancy: ‘No bear or lion ever raked him up/The five-year-old child…’ alluding to mankind’s own current preoccupation with digging up and over, and so losing something essential.

The poignant touch is also apparent as Cannon thinks of her Mother in ‘In the Textile Museum’: ‘as she bent to it, intent;/as she sliced through it with her good scissors’, which is also a nod to Seamus Heaney, particularly ‘Digging’: ‘Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods/Over his shoulder, going down and down/For the good turf. Digging.

Also present is the child’s lament of the parent’s failure to realise his or her own inner poet, which recalls Jung’s line that what has the most impact on a child is the unlived life, or potential, of a parent: ‘whilst behind her on a high shelf/her books of poetry’.

Perhaps for want of emotional seedlings that would create a more distinct vocabulary, Cannon occasionally resorts to the clichéd, even mundane, sentiment or observation of the ageing process, such as in ‘Do the Sums’, the person ‘astonished/to find myself over fifty/at least half of my life gone…’.

There is also a tendency to spell things out too much, betraying a lack of confidence in her readers. In Treasure, the reference to the baby Moses would have been better unsaid; as it stands, it robs the piece of nuance:

‘Yesterday among green-shouldered reeds/I found a treasure – no young Moses’

In the same piece the repetition appears again, with ‘nest’, just four lines on from the next instance of the word.

There are two works here where Cannon singles out the seemingly downtrodden or outsider. In the poem, Keats Lives on the Amtrak, from which the collection takes its name, it is the ‘African American’ train conductor ‘…on the clunking, hissing, silver train/between Philly and New York,’ who declares that he wants Keats Lives emblazoned across his chest; in Genius, it is the ‘man who polishes the brass handrails/of the curved staircase in the National Library’, who takes that title: ‘The man who keeps the rails gleaming,/who brushes up the rain-soaked leaves outside,/has written no books./He is a genius of care,/the genius of the place.’

Whilst the collection could have done with an honest editor to root out some of the mundane phrasing that I feel betray a poet’s lack of necessary grounding within herself, overall the collection is a timely one, offering many affecting gems and urgent images of our planet’s predicament: ‘fast-calving glaciers/of birds and beasts and fish and flowers forever lost/and the earth’s old bones pressed for oil’. 

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