Photovoltaic , published by Graft Poetry, is a wonderfully evocative mixture of poems about nature and art, family and reminiscences. I particularly admire the way Sarah focuses on what lies beneath. In British Mosses and Liverworts in which she exhorts us to Take a magnifying glass to moss and look deeper at the ordinary/mundane in our surroundings because we will find that they are not so after all. Moss makes the most of clouds, spreads photovoltaics to the misted sun. That word nestled in there is the collection’s title, unassuming and yet explosive like the picture on the cover, what Sarah calls captured sunshine.
Field Study on a Rainy Day vividly imagines liverwort and fern reproduction –
Any surface in the wood is world for others
That she uses scientific words to describe things seems entirely right to me because the scientific word is the right one: anything less would be too obviously poetic. It is the way this poet thinks.
Rain smashes gemmae up from drop-size cups
on liverwort’s green mat. Fern sperm swims to the egg
on wet leaves. Exidia, witch’s butter, glistens
black on a log. That crust, like paint on a rock
harbours micro-pistels, water-primed to shoot spores
Badged with a microscopic pattern: crescentic, segmented.
In poem after poem, Sarah brings science to life for us. She’s a magician of words whose meanings she knows intimately and so, as a result, we see deeper and further. Using the villanelle form in a series of masterly poems she weaves human experience and science together so that we understand and feel at the same time: this is from All One Breath
All that humans are, the trees foretold:
soul and mind and hand and heart and eye.
A body shows a genome to the world
Light sings to the shoot and endless forms unfurl.
The last poem in the collection Conversations at a Distance is full of affectionate humour for different birds and the one I want to highlight is Curlews as she really gets inside the bird and its amazing flight by her understanding of the science:
Curlews understand air as an open system, adiabatic, chaotic;
how to be tossed in it, how to surf the wind’s upthrust,
to swoop love love-songs in four-dimensional space
I found that the more that I read these poems the more I discovered through their incisive attention to detail, to the carefully chosen word or phrase. Her linguistic range is wide, drawing from science, art and history with equal facility as I hope my chosen quotes illustrate. Meaning lies as much in the poems’ music as in the words alone and in the well-crafted and various forms. Winter is Over refers to Statius, a Roman poet of the first century:
Sun lights lichened oaks, stripes the rides.
Caerulian squares, trapezoids of sky
hang in uncurtained woods.
Alizarin alder fringes the pond’s edge
where duck and drake pair
among winter’s bleached reeds
The collection contains several poems about paintings as well as scientific explorations and to this she also brings her forensic mind. I love the way everything is seen through the prism of her own experience. One of my favourites is Fire in the Forest, as depicted by Piero di Cosimo, and my mother in which she compares di Cosimo’s surreal painting ‘Forest Fire’ depicting strange creatures running from a fire with a rather different painting of her mother’s (probably called ‘Fire in the Forest’)
…Nothing but domesticated fire
sends up that woody incense, with its sign
of human work: a chimney and a hearth.
A poem about a little old lead bear that was given to her by her father evokes her father’s military past and then most poignantly and memorably ends with ….Maybe
that business with the bear was your kindness
to a jealous little daughter you’d hardly met.
This poem poses questions it doesn’t try to answer and under the poet’s microscoping of the past, the bear and the man seem very real to me. Compassion and curiosity in equal measures brings a small family mystery alive.
Another reminiscence is My First Russians evokes an era I also remember –
the time of danger, peace and rumour –
what if the siren changed its usual wail
I happen to know the very town in which this poem was set in Yorkshire and the concise but electric description of the Cossacks horsemanship makes me wonder now if perhaps I saw them, too but perhaps it’s just Sarah’s vivid writing about horses:
Man and horse a single
hurtling intention with one will, the riders
hung below the saddle at the gallop, leaping fire
reins irrelevant as semaphore …..
I felt the ice of fear begin to thaw
as though their hoofs found grass through frozen snow
Sarah’s sharp observation (nb: even as a child) is one of the many strengths of this fine collection that directs the sunshine of our gaze to so many things in the wondrous world of this book which I haven’t even touched upon. There’s lots more to admire.