Poetry book of the month: Lyonesse by Penelope Shuttle – review

Combining two collections in one, the veteran poet immerses us in a mythical kingdom in this extraordinary flow of work

There is always the risk of overlooking an established poet as a known quantity. And it is therefore especially pleasing to be able to hail Penelope Shuttle for her 13th collection, Lyonesse. At 74, she has produced a singular, arresting and moving book in which her talent, far from seeming familiar or faded, is underpinned by the accumulated wisdom of decades. The book contains two collections in one, hinged by a theme of loss.

Lyonesse is Cornwall’s mythical kingdom – its Paradise Lost. It was Thomas Hardy’s name for the county, but is also said to have been a real piece of west Cornwall lost in the bronze age – swept under the sea. It is this kingdom that has fired – watered – Shuttle’s imagination and produced an extraordinary flow of work. I should confess that the prospect of the ancient Cornish myth did not make my heart beat faster – I have a blind spot about folksy revival. But this is no fey evocation of a lost kingdom. Shuttle’s Lyonesse is fresh, clear and convincing. It gives grief geography, an address. I believe in its direct dispatches from a submerged front line.

In the preface, she tells us it was a particular phrase – “the gownshops of Lyonesse took satin for granted” – that came to her out of the blue and unspooled into poems. “Taking satin for granted” is a lovely phrase and flows as silk should – but also sounds a warning. She is mindful of the prelapsarian heedlessness of life before loss. And this is echoed in her second half where, in break of day/this one evening, she writes:

imagine living without sorrow
I’d forgotten life used to be like that

lovely carefree summers
like old palaces overgrown with wild roses
drift of petals on a wooden floor

The casual, sorrow-free past is irretrievable and, in Lyonesse, the sea rips silk to shreds:

every dress was a flounce
in the wrong direction

Lyonesse is an immersion in a big sea where Shakespearean details float like driftwood, including a brief but intriguing encounter with Millais’s model Lizzie Siddal (who posed as Ophelia in an ice-cold bath and nearly died of pneumonia).

In the second part of the collection, we come up for air. These poems exist in an insubstantial new element. The opening poem – cup of evenings – begins:

The house
is running on empty

Shuttle’s conversational ease serves her well and “running on empty” earns its keep. Elsewhere, there are many other examples of a gracefully colloquial and economical turn of phrase: “summer on the back foot” or “rain comes out of nowhere” (Swarthmoor Hall, Ulverston) or “the door/ knows its place” (in my house). And new lamps for old is particularly simple and affecting – acknowledging time’s tough bargaining. Shuttle never shows off – she knows there is no need for ostentation – but she is playful. There is a skip in her step and, although many of these poems are heart-wringing, she never commits the crime of being doleful. She was married to the poet Peter Redgrove (who died in 2003) and called her ninth collection Redgrove’s Wife. Here, in husband, she bestows the word husband on the poem repeatedly and makes him part of the landscape. I was amused by the unusual honour he acquires as: “husband of fancy-dress clouds by night.”

In the preface, she writes: “Poetry releases us into our own custody” – a persuasive idea. And what happens in Lyonesse is that, through the alchemy of poetry, solitude becomes companionable. When poetry communicates as well as this, it releases not only the writer but the reader too.

new lamps for old

sang the harp

prepare for sorrow
and silence

for sleeping alone
on the bare floor

new lamps for old
sang the harp

learn to eat alone
in the cold kitchen

to walk golden cliff
and sunlit tide line alone

get used to the hard work
of it sang the harp

silver spoon
in time’s mouth

new lamps for old

Lyonesse by Penelope Shuttle is published by Bloodaxe (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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