Penelope Shuttle, Will you walk a little faster? (Bloodaxe Books, £9.95).

The eponymous title poem of Penelope Shuttle’s latest collection, Will you walk a little faster?, keen ‘Alice’ fans will know, is a line from ‘The Mock Turtle Song’ in Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland. The minimalist simplicity of Shuttle’s form here, is not a homage to ‘The Mock Turtle’, which is mostly rhyming couplets, but shares a style of a slightly bewildered and bewildering, child-like, nonsensical voice, ‘looking’ askance at the world. Shuttle equates her mature poet’s view (this collection is published to celebrate her 70th birthday) with the small girl’s vision, as the poet, also through peripatetic wandering, walks the cityscapes of London and Bristol, and considers what lies beneath through the ‘rabbit-holes’ of her own vision.

‘Will you walk a little faster? said a whiting to a snail,
There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.
…Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?’

–Lewis Carroll

The Mock Turtle schooling happens under the sea, apposite given Shuttle’s Cornish connections, sea-water and light and shore rarely far from these poems.
‘Mock Turtle Soup’ was made from the head and brains of ‘calves’. It may be Shuttle refers here to the celebrated love of her life, the poet Peter Redgrove, with whom she lived in the South-West, who to some extent ‘schooled,’ grew and nurtured her own poetic ‘brains,’ in what seems a symbiotic, relationship, until his death in 2003, aged 71. Though a lifetime’s passion, there are intriguing, small admissions, as in ‘My Life,’ the opening poem in the collection, of the long shadow cast by love lost:

‘I know you so well,
My life, not at all’

It can’t always have been easy, being co-habiting poets. There are hints of a predatory, compulsive element to it, as in, ‘Down-time/along this quiet London street, time to remember/his eagle’s grip on happiness.’ (‘Quiet Street’.) That eagle grips pulls the reader up smartly, something altogether darker in a bird of prey’s grip, employed to kill, and lord-over. But Shuttle has a very English stoicism that prevents these glimpses being lingered over.

Shuttle’s poems are reflective, lyrical – her ‘Dwell-times’. Two poems start with ‘Quiet’ in their titles, and ‘Quiet Street’, begins with this phrase, ‘Dwell-time’ and additionally, has the word ‘quiet’ three times in twenty-two lines. There is a strong sense of her living as an outsider-looking-in on life, at the home they once shared, as in ‘As I fell’ where – ‘my life / folded into silly solemn minutes / of years’ and where, ‘I’m getting closer / and closer / to you.’ Though haunted, there is an under-cutting, sardonic voice in the poems that cuts through: ‘The dead are writing on the ceiling/as if their deaths depend on it’ (‘On the Ceiling.’)

Shuttle’s style is spare, employing short-syllabled words, often only five or six to a line. She writes mostly in continuous, single stanzas, with little punctuation, and no end-stops at the final-line, suggesting a literal and metaphoric open-endedness, or irresolution, mimicking the ‘will you, won’t you’ indecision of the ‘The Mock Turtle Song.’

All these concerns coalesce in the title poem. The poet, (‘like Alice / I look both ways’), is walking in Oxford, (‘the brainbox city’). But she is not, ‘hurrying off…to see the remains of a dodo / I plan to read / not one / of the six million books / in the Bodleian.’
She eschews the ‘dreamy spires’ for her own ‘Looking-Glass’ dreams – often grotesque – where the heretics Latimer and Ridley are roasted alive there on ‘god’s turnspit’ and the history that lies behind ‘this leather-bound city’ (wrapped in the dead-skins of animals) is violent.

Until she finds ‘The Physic Garden’, with Nature’s curative powers and solace, where ‘like the porpoise not the snail / I’m walking faster / waltzing…’, but the bucolic morphs into a vision of an asylum, ‘the wards and waiting rooms…an earthy source of tincture and tisane, / the help-yourself of nature’…‘wears a green coat / not white / don’t you agree?’ Oxford, the home of the intellect, is also the site of insanity, which only nature, which provides the ‘affordable art / of clouds and rain’ (‘Knowledge’) can cure. The questioning of ‘Don’t you agree?’ as the end line sounds a conversational, but also anxious conclusion.

Ken Evans

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