Amongst the poems, in prose and verse, of her latest pamphlet Brightwork – a follow up to last year’s excellent Marine Objects / Some Language – Suzannah V. Evans translates a number of pieces by Francis Ponge, minimally adapting their imagery to the localised milieu of a boatyard. In ‘Rain’, for example, a poem of deft attention and delicate syllabic patterning, the manifold action of rainfall is shifted from Ponge’s Paris courtyard to ‘the boatyard’, while scalar comparisons for water droplets – ‘un grain de blé’, ‘un pois’, ‘une bille’ – are swapped for boatbuilding paraphernalia – ‘pin head’, ‘copper rove’, ‘shackle’. Another poem, ‘Puffin, the little Hillyard’, retitles Ponge’s ‘La Barque’, allowing a new perspective on a classic wooden yacht (and on Ponge’s poem).
Direct homage to Ponge is a savvy move on Evans’s part, allowing a more nuanced appreciation of the qualities of attention she’s cultivating in her work. ‘I particularly admire certain restrained writers’, Ponge tells us in ‘Notes For a Sea Shell’, ‘because their monument is made from the true secretion common to the human mollusk, from the thing most closely proportioned and adapted to his body … LANGUAGE’. The voice of Brightwork is suffused with this Pongean tact, with a quality of discretion or restraint which nevertheless allows a sense of powerful feeling to emerge.
Mostly, these poems build towards an intensely affectionate investment in things seen, a cathexis mirrored in the care taken over the poetic act of knowing and naming. ‘Slipway’, which eases us in to the collection, admires a roster of ‘lovely things’ about its titular object: ‘your timber cradle, how you hold the hull of boats so closely, how you keep your chocking stable, and whistle at the sight of the wooden deck’. Many of the recurring pleasures of the poems in Brightwork are present here: playfully anthropomorphising lyric address; enjoyment of specialised lexis – ‘chocking’; imaginative working up of sound into voice – the slipway’s ‘whistle’ (returned to, memorably, in the closing ‘Slipway Song’); a subtle investment of favoured objects with a quality of maternal care – ‘cradle’, ‘hold’.
Notably Pongean, too, is the collection’s anti-monumentalist focus on tools, machines, and bits of infrastructure that might easily go unnoticed, as well as its affection for the arcana of a craft – boatbuilding – easily reduced, in the age of the supertanker, to mere ‘heritage’. The title, Brightwork, derives from those parts of a boat of special polish, whether in wood or metal – elements which need maintenance and love to withstand the corrosive, barnacling impact of the sea. A sense is cultivated, throughout these pages, that the poet’s own brightwork is an act of rescue and salvage, the painstaking buffing up, in language, of things otherwise liable to entropy and neglect – things which, like ‘Puffin, the little Hillyard’ are vulnerable before the storm we call progress: ‘Left alone, she follows the current and drifts, like everything in the world, towards ruin’.
In ‘Say Elbow, Say Heart’, Evans has her boatbuilders dream of ‘a red hull inching / onto the slipway’, the dawn light which wakes them conflated with the glint of finish on the imagined vessel:
And as the dream fades away,
And the sun eases up over the harbour,
The words brightwork brightwork brightwork
Lap at the corners of their rooms.
Here, the careful deployment of metaphor suggests the sociological concept of habitus – how our perception is shaped by institutional and technical structures of labour and action. Throughout Brightwork, Evans celebrates the highly particular imaginative worlds created by skilled labour, a shape of encounter between body and matter which takes form in a shared argot – a truly Pongean ‘monument’ all-too-easily lost in a homogenising, capitalist work-culture: ‘language is worked into the wood as they [the boatbuilders] move, / mahogany murmuring with the sound of canvas, / carlins, clinker, coaming, cradle, crook’.
Brightwork imagines language sedimented in matter, a trace left by the interactions of living and non-living bodies. The poet’s task is to listen in to such significant encounters, translate them into speech: ‘place your hand on my smooth side and I am a rounded belly, full of sea dreams’, a buoy entreats (‘Buoy’); elsewhere, a pontoon ‘curls its voice around a creek, grumbles’ (‘Pontoon’). Together, these poems coax open the boatyard habitus, allowing it to slide out into a broad ecology of material interactions, the ‘sweet frictions’ of wood, air, metal and water tracked by subtle modulations in the sounds of words, an ‘acoustic tumbling’ (‘Slipway Song’). Thus, ‘rain thrums on hulls and hoods, / batters hatches, haunts heels / and heads of sails’ (‘Underfalling’).
Often, Evans’s skillful sonics put me in mind of Lorine Niedecker, another poet whose work focused on the practical artefacts of ‘life by water’. She seems to share with Niedecker (and other Objectivists such as Oppen and Zukofsky), a trust that the things themselves, properly re-presented, might yield a quiet socio-cultural commentary. These are poems which encourage an ethics of careful listening and argue for respectful proportion between human presence and the elemental world. One of a host of writers drawn to the fertile margins of sea and land – many of them, such as Isabel Galleymore, also published by Guillemot – Evans has nevertheless martialled her influences to claim a highly distinctive poetic lineage. In Brightwork, her voice continues to develop with singular and exhilarating focus.
Oliver Southall 13th June 2021