flick invicta – Sarah Crewe
Oystercatcher Press 2012
£5.00 A5 24pp. ISBN: 978-1-905885-55-8.
Reviewed by Tom Jenks
This short book by Sarah Crewe, published by Peter Hughes’ always interesting Oystercatcher Press, poses many questions. The first is: what exactly is it? Is it a long poem, a sequence of poems or a collection of discrete pieces? Reading flick invicta, the reader is repeatedly presented with these questions and is always looking for connections, for a way of navigating the text and understanding its internal wiring. Content is constantly framed and reframed. Perhaps the most pertinent analogy is that of a Venn diagram with many circles of context, voice, syntax and style. Where these circles intersect is where the poetry happens. Although each of these poems work individually, they work best when read together, forcing the reader to become actively involved in the construction of the poem text. Correspondences between the pieces suggest themselves and are overlaid by other correspondences, like transparent acetates. In the hands of a lesser writer, this lability could become chaotic, unfocussed: in Crewe’s, however, the text is dynamic rather than diffuse, molten rather than muddied. Her technical skill and lightly worn but tangible control of her material create a work that is open but coherent.
Crewe’s writing is sparse, precise. Everything extraneous has been burned away, leaving the spare, elegant bones. These pieces frequently suggest narrative but do not offer an arc, leaving us instead to make our own mosaic. A recurring stylistic feature is an almost, but not quite, two columnar layout, leading the reading eye first horizontally, then vertically. But these columns bulge, buckle and shear and we are refused an easy avenue. The spacing here is deliberately deployed, apparently instinctive but never gratuitous, and serves different functions in different locations: sometimes suggesting lacunae and effacement, at others that the poem has been smashed like a china vase and stuck back together, at others the delineation of different voices or different aspects of the same voice manifesting themselves in the same space, at others all or none of these things. The opening poem, flick/wavertree, is a case in point, the oblique slashed title suggesting a dialogue between self and landscape that is picked up again in the opening stanza:
through the pages i breathe aspen
bronze but pale girl botanic
This apparently simple dialectical opposition is, however, as the poem develops, made more complex as other relationships appear and cut across it. In the second and third stanzas, for example, we have beautiful, almost Zen, natural images (stonecrop circles and wolfberry) set against stark modernity (HIV) and the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture (wendy james – younger readers may need to use Wikipedia here). But just when it seems that the text may be resolving itself into a pattern or set of patterns, the wind walks through the forest and moves the trees around. In the final two stanzas the matrix dissolves and we are forced to think again, to perpetually reacquaint and renegotiate. The triumph of flick invicta is its accommodation between transparency and opacity, sustained throughout and carried off impeccably. We are never far away from things we recognise –wildlife, flowers, the built environment – but these things are not there to contextualise a narrative or produce a nod of recognition. Rather they are simply placed in the poem space alongside other text units, all given equal weight. Space is used to create internal enjambment within lines, striking apparently disparate words and phrases against one another and making them resonate: catkin and whisker in diamond dove; flight and felo de se in flick/necropolis. Elsewhere, we have a Tender Buttons style block in flick/newsham park, a beautifully dense text tapestry woven with gold and silver sonic threads. As with much in this book, the complexity of the piece is not immediately apparent. It is only when we look (and listen) closely do we see that what appears to be a simple paragraph is in fact crackling with alliteration, its every rift, to use Keats’ phrase, loaded with ore. The repeated hard c sounds, sometimes buried in the middle of words, suggest alternative correspondences: between fork tailed birds and nocturnal gymnastics; circumflex and fin de siècle; flick and ekaterina. So too the more sparingly used t sounds, connecting penchant with contingent and stilts with trees. The page becomes dynamic, an open field and a nodal space through which the reading eye and ear can move multiply. Sounds flash and glitter like shards of mirrors in the grass.
There is no punctuation in the book and little evidence of authorial interpretation. There is nothing to guide us except the text itself. Each piece is titled, but often obliquely and tangentially. This leaves many matters unresolved, not least the identity of flick. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fragmentary, shape-shifting nature of the book, it is inhabited by a single voice. This voice emerged differently at different readings, but always emerged: spectral, echoing, distant but ever discernible, never inchoate. For me, the voice is always female and, although moving through a poetic space populated with recognisable signs and signifiers, is nonetheless protean. I was reminded of the female protagonist of Woolf’s Orlando by the sense Crewe creates of time becoming liquid, of everything happening everywhere at once.
flick invicta is a book of technical facility and luminous artifice, a suite of poems both unified and diverse, quotidian and ethereal. It is controlled and deliberate but also instinctive, oblique but tangible and always deeply human, warm and breathing. This is a book that bears and demands close reading, concentration and attention. Beneath the bright, smooth sheen of these limpid waters dart strange and beautiful fish.