Jo Shapcott, Of Mutability (Faber & Faber 2010)
I never know how to write about a poetry collection, where every page is a new beginning. Some poems grab you, some don’t. Some yield their meaning immediately, some take a while, others need a bit of research before they make any sense at all. Occasionally you have to put the book down and go for a walk to get used to a world where what you’ve just read can exist. Sometimes you’re compelled to read something aloud to a friend who happens to be at hand, whether they want to be read to or not. All these things were part of my experience of reading Of Mutability, which was Book of the Year in this year’s Costa Book Awards. (Thank you, judging panel, for pointing me to it.)
I often feel that I need a bit of help with poetry, and dust jackets, being unavoidably more interested in potential buyers than actual readers, aren’t always much help. The dustjacket flap here, for instance, talks about poems ‘which have a way of turning physics into the physical, the subatomic field of matter into one vast erogenous zone’. That’s all very sexy, but it doesn’t help with, say, these lines from ‘Era’, early in the book:
I left home shortly after eight-thirty
on foot towards the City. I said goodbye
to the outside of my body: I was going in.
What would have helped was a little note somewhere telling us that many of these poems were written when the author was dealing with breast cancer. OK, not such a good marketing ploy, and any bookshop browsers who weren’t put off might buy the book expecting something like a Health Crisis Novel in Verse, only to be bitterly disappointed to find that many of the poems are about other kinds of mutability (dementia, ageing, the seasons …), and some about completely unrelated subjects such as urban architecture or peeing.
It turns out that, though I found out about the breast cancer elsewhere, Jo Shapcott points the acute reader to that information, and offers other useful tips, in her acknowledgements. An electronic version might present the last part of the acknowledgements something like this:
My thanks also [...] to the neuroscientist Mark Lythgoe who, for the poem ‘Composition‘, introduced me to latent inhibition (the ability we have to filter out irrelevant stimuli).
The artist Helen Chadwick is the presiding spirit of this collection. Many of the poems, including ‘The Oval Pool‘ and ‘Piss Flower‘, refer directly or indirectly to her work. I am also indebted to Marina Warner‘s illuminating writings about her.
The book owes everything to Dr Sam Guglani, Dr Sean Elyan and their team at Hereford County Hospital.
Adding those links and titles took me far too long, but if you were to read a version of the book with them in place, life would be much simpler. You could not only be looking at images of the two works by Helen Chadwick within moments, you could find out with two clicks that doctors Guglani and Elyan specialise in cancer, and you’d have a fair idea of what they and their team did for the poet: ‘I was going in’ starts sounding a lot more like surgery than catatonia. Cancer isn’t named anywhere in the book, but things like:
Too many of the best cells in my body
are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw
forgive, and forget what’s
happening in my cells.
It’s you I’m thinking of
work a lot better for me if I have a ballpark idea of what’s going on with the cells.
Of course, I wouldn’t have gone searching like that if the poetry hadn’t already grabbed me, and some of the poems don’t need any supporting apparatus at all. ‘Procedure’, which you can hear Jo Shapcott read in this interview with Sarah Crown of the Guardian, is one such. Perhaps my favourite of the selection, ‘Uncertainty is Not a Good Dog’
Uncertainty is not a good dog.
She eats bracken and sheep shit,
drops her litters in foxholes
and rolls in all the variables
wriggling on her back until
she reeks of them,
until their scents are her scents.
is another. (That’s not the whole poem, in case you’re wondering.)
Two last remarks: baldness will never look the same to me again, and the phrase ‘piss holes in the snow’ is changed forever.