Ian Marriott, The Hollow Bone (Cinnamon Press, £8.99).
The blurb on Ian Marriott’s first book does a good job of summing up the contents, ‘Meditative, spare and precise…suffused with a vital, shamanic sensibility.’ Marriott’s poems are often very short, with short lines in the kind of free verse which is happy to have different line and verse lengths, ‘Night flaps its broken tent./ A porthole moon/ peers down/ over small inland lakes.// Under the skin it tugs – slight parted the harbour mouth.’ This latter from the sequence ‘Terra Infirma’ is not untypical of the book as a whole. The verbs ‘flaps’, ‘peers’, ‘tugs’ are present tense monosyllables in short sentences in which they are prominent and declarative, presenting facts to the reader with some definiteness. There’s no arguing with a Marriott poem; they stand as rock solid miniatures. The lines and verses are made from breath units which have a kind of inevitability in their exhalations.
The landscapes these poems explore are often of this windswept, frozen kind. And are inhabited with a range of appropriate fauna and flora, from arctic hares to polar bears, wolves and caribou. There are odd ‘warm’ moments in this world, but even ‘The armadillo sleeps/ in its armour of frost’. But when humans occur, and that isn’t very often, then they might be heading ‘out early/ onto the high moor,/ the whole day through thick mist/ and deep, untrodden snow.// The whole day without words…’ ‘Christmas’. So there’s a distinct absence of companionship in these poems. In the two poems, ‘Antarctic Winter I’ and ‘Antarctic Winter 2’, Marriott paints a detailed and sympathetic portrait of what it must be like to live through an Antarctic Winter, beginning with ‘Each morning’s bruised rim is painful to touch.’ And ending with ‘I am a Gordian bundle of bone and muscle’, the narrator having been forced by the environment to place his relationship with his parents in the new light of his situation.
The sensibility that drives these poems is deeply empathetic towards the natural world. And Marriott is good enough a poet to avoid both a sub Hughesian projection of animal existence, and also an eco-poetics; although it’s clear where he stands on conservation and eco-politics. In the poem ‘Wasps’, Marriott writes about the wasps at the end of the summer when they are ‘coming in/ to die’. In the second half of the poem, he captures something of the notion of this event impinging on his own world, ‘Each waist a drawn snare – / for I know I will find you// curled in some corner,/ pit burial of the sink -// perfect comma/ to punctuate my morning.’ If this poem has echoes of Edwin Muir’s ‘The Late Wasp’, Marriott updates Muir to bring the wasp into a contemporary milieu, not only with the comparison of ‘wasp-waisted’ with a snare, and with the sink which contrasts to the ‘sweet pit’ of Muir’s wasp’s death in the marmalade jar.
Coupled with the quality of ‘rock solid miniatures’, in these poems, is Marriott’s ability with an ending. And possibly that rock solid feel is accentuated by Marriott’s endings. One such concludes ‘Aurora Landscape’ a typically brief and pregnant Marriott poem, ‘the dumb glass blower/ empties his long lungs/ of light.’ Or this from ‘Strange’, which describes the narrator’s encounter with an octopus who escapes the narrator’s eye through ‘that rusted port-hole/ so impossibly/ smaller than yourself.’; the poem ending, ‘you’re through -/ gathering together on the other side,/ this place too strange to fathom.’ So there’s a rounded quality to these poems which, with Marriott’s other skills, helps them skirt the vatic, whilst showing the natural world as having a natural mystery to which we need to pay attention.