Victoria Gatehouse's second publication The Mechanics of Love (Smith Doorstop 2019), selected by Carol Anne Duffy as a Laureate's Choice publication, is a worthy successor to her 2018 debut Light After Light (Valley Press 2018), taking in a beguiling variety of subjects, from Sixth Form Science studies, to spiderwebs on wing mirrors, via death, dogs, and Darwin. It also contains two worthy competiton winners - of the Otley Poetry Competition 2018, and the previous year's PENfro Competition.
And this will be no perfect union, the book begins, in a poem on the unlikely theme of Inosculation - the phenomenon, where two trees effectively grow into each other - but one born of abrasion.
I first came acrossinosculation earlier this year, and have struggled to find a better description of it than in Victora Gatehouse's tenderly observed lines:
grown close enough to graze, to chafe
as they shift in the wind, their bark worn thin,
rubbed down to the gleam of the cambium,
the raw lustre of vascular tissue.
Pondering the possibilities of a meld / of cells, a wound healed to a rise and shine, the poem transfigures the trees into imagery of innocent intimacy:
Some call them marriage trees, some say these grafts
once fused and sealed, transmit disease
or claim the heartwood isn't touched , but once
I saw two beeches, interlocked,
initials scratched across the place they joined.
It is the first time I have encountered such a subject in a poem, and one which seems the perfect metaphor for a remedy of togetherness in these increasingly abrasive times.
Victoria Gatehouse is a scientist by profession, and - as in certain poems in her first book - this is responsble, however obliquely, for a number of poems and their backstories within The Mechanics of Love. The context is not always pleasant - in Sixth Form Science Technician, we revisit a grotesque memory of collecting pig's blood for inspection with a microscope - but the merging of a scientfic and poetic aspect is satisfyingly eloquent. Here, one of the crinkly paper "Fortune telle fishes" found in Christmas crackers - a barely-there wafer of cellophane / turning over on your lifeline - is described years later through adult eyes:
A scientist now, you could explain
that whisper-thin strip as hygroscopic-
swelling or receding with the level
of moisture in the skin, a material so light
it shapeshifts on a breath
But as with the opening poem, it is the poet in us which has the final say, as:
it on your palm, you'll find yourself wanting
to show you've still got it in you
to raise that Independent flag of a tail.
Even in poems like Ceiling, where the wallpaper of a teenage bedroom is recalled, it is words like stalactites and spiral galaxies which stand out, along with a nod to Dr Who. The worlds of science, zoology and nature again takes centre stage in poems like Web on the Wing Mirror, where:
The morning I drove to the hospital
hedges glimmered and a web,
silver-beaded, spanned the wing-mirror,
a spider crouched tight on the edge.
The poet imagine the spider grafting all night - constructing the scaffolding and reflects how:
I drove so carefully that day-
slowing each time the wind
forced her silk to billow, to bend
and she hung on in there.
Another driving poem is the unsettling Indian Blue Peacocks for Sale, prompted by an advert scrawled on sawn-off chipboard seen while driving. I'd quite like to ring and ask if that's for a chick, the poet says, or a full-grown bird. The poem, written in a somewhat breathless, stream-of-consciousness style, is both a challenge to the unethical practises of commodotizing animals:
didn't I read
that peacocks need space more than can be found
in sunless back yards
and a dig at Darwin, imagining:
how Darwin would turn away sickened
by the thought of females having the power to shape
In fairness to Charles Darwin, my understanding of his feeling "sickened" at the sight of peacock feathers (quoted above the poem) was primarily related to his unease at how the beautiful but apparently unnecessary peacock feather appeared to contradict his theory of Natural Selection - and he did, indeed, go on to solve the puzzle, framing the feather as a perfect example of the burgeoning idea of Sexual Selection, but the subject at least provides a platform for some of the poet's most exhillerating, ironic imagery:
musters of them might dust-bathe in gutters roost
on the cold shoulders of pylons act out their quivering
deep-blue rituals in the piss-reek of alleys of city estates
creech and signal from the bonnets of parked cars
Meanwhile, another natural subject brings the poet's thoughts closer to home, as
I watched pale shreds
form a mezzanine above the reservoir,
thought back to the time we abandoned
the car, took the path across the moors,
the hum of the motorway
receding with each step until we found
the perfect place for a blanket
and afterwards, your hand in ine,
as we slept, a glaze of heather at our backs.
The poem again touches on relations between science and personal understanding, which emerges as a salient theme interwoven throughout this deeply felt collection - most notably in the titular poem, where It ticks me to sleep / the titanium valve in your heart.
When they opened you up,
hooked cannulised veins
to the heart-lung machine
the author treads a fine and poignant line between the coldly clinical and hard-hitting:
how bood streaked back
from ventricle to atrium,
more turbulent with every year
and the vitality and tenderness of human experience:
Now the deep red
chambers of your heart, secured
against the leak and tonight,
every night, in that pause
between beats -
With its short two-line stanzas, the poem, second place in the Poetry on the Lake Silver Wyvern Competition 2017, evokes a sense of intimacy, but also of suspense, or the fragility and brevity of every moment, as our eyes dart for the next installment, like someone impatiently looking ahead, or or of a consciousness of the intertwining of events - like other poems in the book which deal with human binding in a medical context, The Mechanics of Love is told in a rolling style of verse, where each line - and each new stanza - is part of the same sentence as the one preceding, a moving metaphor for the "sealing" of a heart, and the joining of lives.
Pearl's Daughter takes as its inspiration the dive of an Ama woman / in Ago bay, bare backed and free / from the compressed weight of oxygen is visualized. The poet embraces the idea of diving for pearls:
Let me rise
before dawn, join the women who make
dockyards tilt and dip with bamboo flares,
hair bound by tenugi, long knives slipped
into fundoshi at their hips. And let my strong toes
propel me down to thirty feet and my lngs
become the lungs of the sea, bronchioles streaming
like weed, alveoli blown out to a coral-red bloom.
As with the spider's web, and newborn's cord - this wisp of a thing - / a twist of ochre, a garnet swirl,/ a swell of black, like a fossilised eye, which pulsed between us, bue-white / vigorous, the best I had to give, the poem is graced with images uniting the wider world with the familial:
if I'm to bear a daughter
let her swim before she can walk, let her hair
spread into a thousand salty whispers at her back,
let her pray to the glimmering eye of the shrine
for my return
concluding with the imploration:
let her body be a twist of flame the ocean can't douse.
The grandmother remembered for popping her deceased husbad's pills so that they wouldn't go to waste, the dog following his shadow, who is fixated on the moves / of his darker self, the husband, heart intact thanks to the workings of modern science - all these and more form a richly personal tapestry of family snapshots, natural observations, images of love, combining to intricately and beautifully illustrate the mechanics of love.