The vocabulary used in this collection is perhaps best characterised by what it excludes. There is very little non-standard or ‘new’ English here, very little dialect, vernacular, slang, other languages. The use of proper names is tightly controlled – a few places and people here and there; certainly almost no trace of current affairs, brands, popular culture. It goes without saying that no one talks like this – no one could get far in everyday life with such a restricted stock of words – but it is unusual to find even poetry like this today.
This is one reason why Burns’ poems seem so fragile and precious. It seems almost unbelieveable that they can hold off the teeming heteroglossia that surrounds them. It is certainly noticeable when a slightly low word like ‘shove’ appears (‘An eighteenth-century experiment’) or a slightly specialized one like ‘felucca’ (‘A homecoming’), while the rare specificity of ‘Silloth’, ‘Carstairs’, ‘Cold War’, and ‘Nazis’ draw you into geography and history. And for me these moments give an extra pleasure, not least because they gently remind you that the collection’s persistent themes (bereavement, creativity) always emerge from the evocation of a particular place and time even if the reader couldn’t pin them them on a map or a calendar.
But the most characteristic feature of Held – its signature, even – is its astounding ability to span centuries and continents in a few lines, as the observation of something so humble as a stone coffin, an excavated trench , a river approaching the sea, gives way to a glimpse of its distant past or possible future.
In ‘Transport’, for example, an image of barges laden with gunpowder pulled by horses takes us back to the crofters gathering the kelp ash used in its production and forwards to the sea voyage and explosions on the other side of the ocean. ‘History’ combines in one view – and a sublimely condensed apprehension of human and geological time-scales – the ruins of an abbey and a nuclear power station, ‘whose indestructible / waste is in the seabed where layers of sediment / became the quarried sandstone, heaved over salt marsh // to be turned into an abbey.’
The front cover of the book features a white porcelain moon jar in the British Museum (and the subject of one of the poems), but the material objects in these poems are not trapped in a display case; they are invested with labour, love, power and suffering. As the title suggests, it’s what’s inside them, the secret biographies they harbour, that counts.
Sometimes, it is true, the poems themselves seem a little too laboured and unconvincing. The metaphor of portrait and sitter in ‘Diptych’ feels overextended so that its point becomes unclear. The historical sweep of ‘Holy Water’ from mediaeval monks to nuclear subs packs in more descriptive and explanatory clauses than it needs, I think. And the collection closes with ‘This life’ – whose title I imagine unwittingly duplicates that of the cult TV series: it is the only time we find ourselves in an urban environment, and I wonder if it isn’t just its protagonist (a characteristic ‘you’) but the writer herself who feels uncomfortable there, as she slips into a series of glib, short, generalizing nouns before resting more sure-footedly on the sensuous particular: ‘… but this life with its city streets, // its fizz and mix and mess, its rush of sweet-pea scent, / the lightness of their petals, their brief and lovely bloom.’