Antonia Pont Reviews Meredith Wattison

By | 1 October 2015

If being a flâneur in one’s own family history involves a kind of wandering, a kind of lostness, then this collection manages to evoke that feeling. Even with the knowledge that the poem‘s first lines are the ‘titles’, so to speak, the layout in parts still confused me and I often needed to refer back to the ‘contents’ page to check whether I was beginning a new poem. Themes smear across consecutive poems, double back, are stitched through and surprisingly poke out further along in the volume. Poems in the later parts of the volume get tighter, cohering around more contained incidents: ‘I understood that those rarefied creatures’; ‘We have had a tropical downpour’; and ‘The cool, dark bank’. The lucid and raw, ‘If I could tear myself’, in its closeness and palpable intelligence, is worth the wait. With the swan’s reappearance, its gravity as theme concatenates back through the collection:

The black, black swan
Stitches up its back
like upholstery on a train.

There is much to admire about this collection – and that might be the right word for its preoccupations and structure. Apparent miscellany, on first encounter, accumulates through repetition and reframing, to become stable motifs deeper into the volume. It performs a dissection of our capacity to see: the ambivalence of attachments, the remnants of history, the fleeting scenes of one’s own and others’ lives. In this way, the poem ‘The steps towards construction’ – about the memory of a science experiment on an eye – sits almost metonymically at the work’s heart, and urges our engagement – even if this is sometimes difficult, even mildly inhospitable – with Wattison’s larger offering:

The cow’s eye, when yawning,
had a Celtic pool’s depth,
all the precious, broken things thrown in.

Wattison has orchestrated for the reader a squall of detail, personae, incidents. As we spectrally soar across vast geographical and temporal distances, we are simultaneously plunged, without smart device, into a pure past – conical, fathomless, grainy. It is that vertigo and loss of perspective that accompanies entry to an antiquarian’s lair. Perhaps it’s Martha/Johanna who emerges, shadowy, from the back room. One might believe it’s the contrast in the light that’s making it harder to see, but really, it’s the nature of the place itself – not entirely safe, but mesmeric. We arrive. We blink away the haze. We begin to turn things over in our hands.

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