‘Best After Frost’ was chosen by the Inter Board Poetry Community as their poem of the year 2011, and quite right too. Medlars – who remembers medlars? More to the point, who will be able to forget this ‘smutty fruit’ after reading a garnet-red and delicious slurpy-slimy poem that sets the tone for an extraordinarily vivid collection. I would have been happy with a whole book of Pannett’s nature poetry, could have sat back in a comfy chair and read through one brilliant imagist poem after another, but it was not to be. By the second poem, I was having to start googling references. This was not a chore – this was a Good Thing. I will explain.
Pannett breaks us in gently with the word. ‘psychopomp’. Great word, but I didn’t know what it meant so looked it up. The definition made perfect sense. Pannett could have used an easier word in her poem title, but why should she? Why dumb down? The chosen word is always precisely the right word, never the one that is better known but might not do the job so well. In ‘Psychopomp: a Guide’, Pannett explores the fine line that is the meeting place between the contemporary and the mythological. This theme runs through the entire collection. Ancient and modern – are we really so different from our ancestors? ‘Two For One’ is an age old tale of vengeance told in a contemporary setting, so any doubts that we’re somehow different is quickly dispelled. The ancients will have their say later in the collection, and they go far, far further back than I expected – but more on that later.
Pannett expects her readers to have a reasonable familiarity with concepts from the ancient times through the dark ages to the Renaissance and beyond. Unfortunately not all of us have her level of erudition, but we no longer need volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica weighing down our teak veneer wall units – we have Wikipedia – and even if we didn’t, the poems stand by themselves without the necessity to know all the references. Knowledge adds an angle, a colour – but it’s not essential. We can read about the traveller from the ship of fools as he explores dry land, and sense the irony because Pannett has made it clear and has no interest in veiling her message. You’d be hard pressed not to understand the poem even if you didn’t know the historical uses of the image. I became so used to looking stuff up that when I came to poems where I was sure I was missing references, I actually emailed the author for clues. As often as not, it turned out that the poem in question was exactly what it said it was and I didn’t need a Masters in Classics or anything else. Sometimes a hare in a field is just a hare in a field. One forgets.
One of the most intriguing offbeat facts I learned from this collection was that Catherine of Aragon brought sweet potatoes to England as part of her dowry. Pannett was not making this one up. I checked. And Henry VIII really did set a competition for growers in England, none of whom managed to cultivate the plant successfully. Out of this random historical fact, Pannett has built a powerful and unusual poem. In ‘Trust the Sun’, Odysseus makes his first appearance. He’ll be back – unless I’m misreading one of the poems, which is always possible. They are so rich in ideas, it’s easy to go off at a tangent and see tales that aren’t really there, but that’s an undeniable strength as it brings out the story-teller in the reader.
You think you know certain images, but you don’t, not really; not until you’ve viewed them through Pannett’s eyes. What if a horse in the Bayeux tapestry could speak? What indeed. The poor beast would suffer ‘bowels of blancmange’ before experiencing the terrible transitions of its brief history, assaulted by ‘arrows like blowflies’. And what is really going on in Millais’ painting of Isabella (she who loved a severed head) that arrived via Boccaccio and Keats and ended up dissected by Mandy Pannett’s pen? Everything is in precise Pre-Raphaelite sharp focus in the painting, and also in the poem, but here it’s at an oblique angle. There’s probably a doctoral thesis to be written exploring the difference in precision between words and pictures with specific reference to Isabella.
In Durham Botanical Gardens there’s a block of marble engraved with Basil Bunting’s famous lines from Briggflatts: ‘Pens are too light. Take a chisel to write’. I thought of that line on reading ‘Mottoes on Sundials’, as well as the more obvious ‘Time is. Time was. Time is past’ which supposedly originates in Greene’s Elizabethan play ‘Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay’ despite sounding much older. Be that as it may, Pannett has found inspiration in the mottoes engraved on sundials. This is a lovely idea. She has taken each inscription and turned it into a poem. Aulus and Lucius built their sundial in Pompeii, so there is great resonance in the lines about voids in the ash – but Pompeii is never mentioned. I find this theme of taking scenes from antiquity and showing them from a different angle refreshing and beguiling.
In ‘Stopping a Bunghole’, I can’t help but feel we have the complete thoughts of Shakespeare (but mostly Hamlet) in one short poem. And why not. This is certainly one possible reading. Pannett never lays down strictures; never insists on a specific meaning. She gives you the best words in the best order, but after that it’s up to you, as should be the case with all literature.
I’m an art nut, so for me, personally, it’s the art poetry that does it; that makes me want to read and re-read. If you want to know how to seduce this particular reader, write about Dürer. I know the artist, now show me the man. This is precisely what Pannett does. Just as I’ve settled into the Renaissance, however, ‘A New Cartography’ comes along and I’m yanked back into the present; a present so removed from the past that this reads as sci-fi at first, but no – it’s contemporary. This is real. This is happening now. I’m back in the present and seconds later I’m addressing a ‘True Fly’ which unexpectedly takes me into DH Lawrence territory and made me think of his mosquito poem. Then, without warning, we jump back to ancient times with ‘Group of Eight’. Coincidentally, when I first read this poem I’d just been looking at Neanderthal cave paintings of seals looking weirdly like double helix DNA. There is something about cave art that ties us together across the millennia in a way words cannot. Language grows and changes. The owners of those eight hands wouldn’t speak any language we know, but we know what a bison looks like and we understand the concept of deer flying across the sky – we’ve never lost that sense of wonder, of the numinous in nature.
‘The Hurt of Man’ needs to be read with Sibelius playing in the background to get into the right mood. This one sent me scurrying off to find out who ploughed the field of vipers and to generally renew my woefully slight acquaintance with the ‘Kalevala’. I like poetry that says, ‘Look, here’s something that happened that you may have read about – go and read more’. I did, and I’m glad I did.
The poetry of the potential typo is represented in the lovely misreading poem, ‘The Starling Point’ where the dull little church of St Olave Hart Street is transformed by the idea of ‘a word / misread that ushers in rune-stones’, but just as the reader settles into this comfortable place, Pannett throws ‘Stunted’ into the mix, a searing poem of what happens when a child has to find some way to survive a cruel upbringing – one of the most powerful and unsettling images of the entire collection.
‘Later, All At Once’ is a wondrous bunch of snippets. No, snippets is too mean a word. A time-traveller’s compendium of moments? Yes, that’s closer. A veritable gallimaufry of images, all of them precise, every one crystal clear. Another clear image sings through in ‘Every Last Bell’. I’ve drawn that bridge with its ‘glittering vertebrae’. This falcon’s eye view of the City zooms in on what might not be immediately obvious, but is no doubt somebody’s prey. When reading this one I couldn’t help thinking of Macbeth and the bell that summons Duncan to heaven or hell. On the subject of sounds – I want to hear the reconstructed fossil’s chirp. Read the collection, and you will too, I promise.
Driftwood has so much more resonance than dust or clay. In ‘Woman-Tree’ I had to assume Pannett was channelling her Norse forebears, and if she hasn’t got any, that’s quite bizarre. Of course she’s got some. Must have. Without getting all Jungian about it, there’s a strong impression of collective memory at work here. Her ancestors could read this newly written poem and understand every word, every reference and every thought. Stories – we all have stories. We understand such things. William Shakespeare wrote many of them down for us, which is handy. ‘Titania’s Wood’ takes me straight to the 1935 Fritz Reinhardt version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, one of my absolute favourite Shakespeare adaptations for the dangerous other-worldness with which he imbues the visuals. I’m convinced that while the cameras were pointing one way, this poem was happening somewhere else, very nearby.
There are so many more wonderful images in this collection. I wanted to list them all, but knew that would be impossible. Read the book instead, as that’s where you’ll find faces of foxes, whimsical looks at the heart, achingly sad poems, and others that make you remember how extraordinarily potent cheap music can be (thank you Noel Coward). Then clutch your birthstone and hope for salvation.
Or visit Room 44 at the National Gallery. I’m talking ‘Seurat, It’s a Long Sunday’ here. The Sunday picture is of course ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’. The picture on ‘the other side’ has to be ‘Bathers at Asnières’ from the description. The poem tells the reader to go north – the empty beach, I would guess, is ‘The Channel of Gravelines, Grand Fort-Philippe’ and your boat can be tied up on the river bank (The Seine at Asnières). I tend to go even further north. I love Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s ‘Lake Keitele’, and if it’s not mentioned in so many words in the poem, it’s only because we’re concentrating on Seurat’s work. It’s still there. You can’t miss it. Go and have a look. Does the reader need to be familiar with this particular room in the gallery? I know these paintings so well, I find it impossible to do a ‘new’ reading of the poem, so I really have no idea.
After Seurat, we have Monet – his life in reverse through ‘A Suggestion of Leaves’, a beautifully conceived and executed poem, but before getting too comfortable with the French Impressionists, we’re yanked back in time again. Mesolithic morphs into Neolithic, but hindsight is unavailable to this stone age man. Is this progress? He can’t tell.
Why didn’t I know the paintings of Eric Ravilious? I do now. I read the poem, looked up the artist. Ah – a student of Paul Nash. I love Nash’s work. I’m taking so long looking at the paintings, I’ve forgotten about the poem. Go back to look at it. This is an artist I should explore further, but before I do that there are a few gentle poems and then suddenly we’re back to pre-history and crossing the land bridge that brought people from Siberia to America. ‘The Kelp Days’ is a stunning poem. Vivid and real and immediate. I’m not surprised to find it won first prize in the Wirral Festival of Firsts 2011.
Remember Odysseus? His father was Old Laertes. Did Odysseus dream of the artichokes and olive groves back on old Ithaca when he was far, far away? I certainly think Pannett dreams of the South Downs. That distinctive countryside pervades much of the collection, particularly the title poem, ‘All the Invisibles’. At this point the reader is nearly at the end of the book. Just a few more intriguing facts to learn ‘Ignatius of Antioch Looks for Stars’. He does? Okay, I’ll look him up, and also try to find the Peckham Rye reference and – good grief. In 1767, William Blake visited Peckham and had a vision of an angel in a tree. I didn’t know that. Oh yes – the poem. What was that about? I return... I’ve a feeling the music of the spheres is going to link this poem to the last: ‘Aeolian Rain’. Yes it does. Angels; this is all about angels – maybe. And everything else.
I’ve resisted talking about aspects of the poems that put one in mind of the collective unconscious or archaic remnants mostly because I don’t know enough about such concepts to say anything sensible, but if I did know about them, I’d be able to analyse this collection and explain its universality in a very technical way. As I don’t, I’m relieved to be able to suggest you read the book instead. I can guarantee that these poems are far more enlightening than any essay I might be able to write. Ideally, take the collection to an art gallery and read it there. You might suffer sensory overload, but it will be worth it.