Sunday, 1 November 2015

Singular Mirages: Myth, Musicality and Beauty in Mandy Pannett's "Jongleur in the Courtyard"

Since first reading it this spring, I have been enchanted by Mandy Pannett's collection Jongleur in the Courtyard (Indigo Dreams 2015), which explores change, grief and hope through a prism of myth and unites the beauties and folklore of natural history with the fleeting, transistional present:

The moth in me twitches

in frail light like a rapid

flash dancer or text on a screen

Mandy Pannett's earlier collections, including the bewitching Bee Purple (Oversteps 2002), Frost Hollow (Oversteps 2006), Allotments in the Orbital (Searle 2009) and All The Invisbles (SPM, 2012) all rank among my favourite books, and Jongleur in the Courtyard is a worthy addition to the repertoire of this uniquely gifted poet.

Described on its blurb by poet Jay Ramsay as soul journeys (which) take place in a timeless present, the poems traverse a spectrum of at times apparently incongruous images - Hades at Charing Cross, gulls, nerves and iron clad bells, algae and rock from a fallen star. They are, as Ramsay says, rich with insight, and a remarkable empathy, and might be seen as spiritual reflections on science and nature, and - to borrow from Jay Ramsay once again - excursions into history: indeed, the opening section is just such an excursion:

Ancient Egyptians believed the soul was composed of five parts," the poet explains in the note to Small Part - and correspondingly the poem consists of five short segments - Heart, Shadow, Name, Essence, Spirit. Serving as a kind of poem-prologue, Small Part, whose title seems cut from the same musical cloth that characterises so much of the lyrical, rhythmic, song-infused collection, begins with a skilfully compressed minimalism, neatly constrained and yet bursting with feeling:

The succeeding four sections are less declarative, weaving images of light and air, stone, hatred and the starling's silhouette, with a central, seven-lined stanza (Name) depicting the private misery of a bullied child:

At school he covered

his hatreds, mostly, that misfit boy.

Every day he hid

the register, every day

it turned up in a bin.

"If their names were lost," he later said
"I hoped they'd vanish too."

With line-endings as pointed and implicative as "covered," and "hid," and of course the twinning of the authoritative, factual register with the children's actual existences, we have already, in this early portion of the book, a sense of Mandy Pannett's ability to draw parallels, and often seamless links, between the figurative and material world, and the essence of identity and self - and the differences between what is recorded as legitimate and proper, and the world beyond official facts and definitions. This is evident in the long and complex poem In Ice and Iron, where the present is contextualized with the times when

we once looked up, ancient foragers in

ice and iron
and even today, the

segmented bits and pieces on the

sea bed


left over from the Great

Dying, that mass eradication of insects by a large impactor
I will turn again to this poem, but suffice for now to say that its undercurrents of deciphered meanings in the bedrock of soil are harmonious with the thematic core of Small Part, which sweeps aside the curtain for the collection in its deceptive, multi-faceted simplicity. The fourth of its constituent parts, Essence, is surprising, original, and yet integral: almost summarizing her talent for extracting the unexpected from the often overlooked, later demonstrated in relation to such subjects as leaves, ravens and Hogarth paintings. I sometimes use Essence as a prelude to readings of my own poems, for it so acutely sets the stage for reflections on the overlooked elements that make up our world:

Where some see ugliness

in slime mould, call it dog's vomit, detest

the way it feasts on rot and creeps

through trees in yellow-

wet threads, others

see beauty

in these cells, these singular

mirages of life

The joys of the unusual, the celebratory sense with which Mandy depicts

a day for dalliance in the woods,

lovers reach up to branches of hazel

and go a-nutting for joy

sharing praise of

how easily the elderberries

slip through my fingers into a dish;

their empty stems are spaces of airiness,

delicate-bare as lace
are highly prevalent in pieces like My English Blossom Tree, which is laced with subtly ironic Oriental flavours

... April in snow, now heavy

now lingering

as Hiroshige's

soft-white feather flakes touch

a mandarin duck

and floral references such as bamboo and camellia nicely place these three-line stanzas in the realms of Haiku-inspired meditative verse, beautifully blending into the poem on the facing page - Three Friends and a Hundred Birds (after a mediaeval painting by Bian Wenjin), in which Siberian Robins, Oriental Skylarks, laughing thrushes and a Slatey-Blue Flycatcher erupt in a

cacophony of feathers

like those of the scarlet minaret who flies away

with a beak of bugs flushed from the bark

by his adamant throbbing of wings.

The poem, which shines with bittersweet beauty and a wry, sad humour (Or perhaps the artist was weary / his fingers tired of plumage and leaves. / Or maybe he lost count.) is at its strongest when melding elements together, in minimal or implied poignancy - such as the closing section, in which Mandy's deft description paints a picture of stoicism and strength:

Three friends are here as blessings

in this busy winter scene:

pine, bamboo and blossom of plum -

blossom which flourishes best in snow

Neatly, but painfully, the collection flows from this resilient and almost battle-hardened image to the melancholy Agree a Separation, where the struggle to save a marriage or relationship is compared to plight of an injured bird, and where

we could watch the city sparrows

pecking around this station bar

blown in by the windy platform's

draught from a leaving train

The use of the train station setting, and the turning on its head of the traditional romance of reunions and lover's trysts that this scene might ordinarily conjure up, neatly characterizes the thin balance between unspoilt peace and hinted horrors that recurs at various junctures of this thoughtful, quietly persuasive collection, perhaps most strikingly in Fine Detail. Here, amid evocations of the deceptively idyllic -

A nestling will open its tiny beak

for any shape of silhouette that flickers

above its eye
the brutal realities of man's inhumanity to man are laid bare:

Now this is a season for children to die

though a drone overhead has a detail of a bird

and its time for the faceless men to scurry

along a nowhere road

Its a season of loss a father says

as he carries home a scrap of torso

The world as painted in Jongleurs in the Courtyard is a world of ironies and contrasts - a world of teeth, tusks, splinters of wishbone, ransacked cities and a Museum of Death, mid December dusk and blue Athenian skies. It is a place where Keats' nightingale weaves in and out of the flight-path of doom-foretelling ravens, where Homeless people shiver, crouch in nook, and where we feel empathy with insects, moths and even woodworm, who

die in tunnels

poor miserable atoms

choked with the fruit of their soft plunderings

and wiped out

in all the darkness

that once was chosen as home.
As the book builds towards conclusions, a feeling of reflected-on mistakes, new truths and insoluble difficulties, pervades in deft, silvery lines, rhythms soft and deceptively gentle, like leaf-fall on an autumn day.

In Remember When We Tried, the pathetic recollection of attempts

to protect the growing grain

by killing off the sparrow, once,

in a landscape swarming with men and boys

all running, shooting, shouting, beating

the air with fists
is almost a metaphor for the whole of human history, the human condition, or perhaps the lost loves and broken alliances touched on in earlier, as

locusts, free of claws and beaks, hovered

above the succulent crops, then plummeted

down, more after more, like a biblical plague

Mandy Pannett could not have spelled out more clearly had she written it in bold capitals. Human Beings, with stubborn clumsiness and short-term, destructive schemes, are destroying the planet and its natural ecology; our desperate endeavours in trying to repair and seal up the cracks that gape wide in our own lives and the wider world, inevitably fail. For me the book's thematic hub is convincingly laid out in the page-length poem In Ice and Iron, discussed earlier but deserving of a closer focus. This nine-stanza poem, each verse packed into a three-line, almost prose-like gasps which manage to somehow cultivate a sense of historical reflection - foot-rooted us - perfectly in tandem with a fast moving action - Snatching at flies ... ferocious scavenging ... racing to the spot.

The poet skilfully draws a parallel between a heritage of those dark interludes where our ancestors lived / in a time before fire, and today's world, where

Now we've forgotten to look at the sky, let alone look

through it or go beyond the faces of stars

fresh dead when man hit flint.

Yet, with a keening anger or despair, a resignation bordering on the nihilistic or a trace of Keats' Negative Capability, we are reminded that

the sky is no clearer now

than it was on the day we once looked up, ancient foragers in

ice and iron

The poem affirms an unflinching vision, a bleak but realist tale of adaptation and survival, sealed in some of the collection's most alluring language:

Can you hear the wind, hear absence of wind, creakings in the

permafrost, the crawling of segmented bits and pieces on the

sea bed left over from the Great

Dying, that mass eradication of insects by a large impactor? Yet,

even as a trickster shifts

from salamander into heat, his name (sparrow-

soft in a tabby's mouth) is caught.

Note the stunning aptness of the words Great Dying, hanging from one stanza to the next - a dreadful mirroring of the immense timescales of ice ages and "eradications", and subtly implying the ways in which world-changing and terrible events are gathered into collective consciousness not in the immediate moment, but over generations, to assume specific namings and identities. In this same spirit of reflection and the making sense of a vast, changing, bewildering, beautiful Universe, the poem continues, telling us - like an argument from Sartre but conveyed in a more poetic, spiritual voice:

... So we offer
identity to a meteorite, or rock of it, call it Woman, Wigwam, Dog-

words to cling to and pin down-

words from the bedrock of soil. A solution then,

somewhere in the interludes.

Mandy Pannett's Jongleur in the Courtyard, a wonderful new chapter to her already glittering bibliography, is a fine, elegant, at times surprising canvas of thought-provoking, musical, visionary ideas and reflections - undeterred from wit and having fun, unafraid of venturing into the darker corners of the psyche and the pains of life's extremities - but underscored by a pure, peace-seeking vitality, a search for truth, and a confident, detailed, at times entrancing poetry. It is a book I highly recommend.

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