Throats Full of Graves
a book of poems by Gillian Prew
Lapwing Publications, 2013
When I was in high school, wild horses tied to my vagrant will could not have dragged me toward required reading assignments. Instead, I would loiter in the school library. One day, I pulled Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opimum-Eater from the shelf. With such an unusual and lurid title, how could I resist? That book and other things I read later by him stuck with me, cast me into a perpetual suspension of optimism, into a permanent and edifying melancholy.
Gillian Prew is Scottish, not English. Close enough geographically perhaps for insinuating De Quincey into this review. Even as Prew’s poems strike me as subtly akin to the cadence and imagistic delirium (interwoven concatenation) of those by Dylan Thomas, I also detect an underlying flair for the abyssal that is similar in quality to De Quincey’s.
Whether in his Confessions, Suspiria de Profundis, or The English Mail-Coach, an orientation toward the sepulchral grants a paradoxical energy and peculiar life to those works. Whether a vision of infinite faces floating on a dark sea, or a blind father mourning his lost daughter, or a deathly carriage moving into a nightmare fugue, the sense of time stalled and significance heightened transforms the dismal into a luminous frisson of art. Similarly, Prew’s poems — like the best Romantic, Symbolist, and Modern art — extract an eccentric radiance from the heart of existential darkness. (This is another example to support my hypothesis that actual art always contains an element of the beautiful, no matter how abyssal the theme or consciousness.)
The poems in Throats Full of Graves are not only presentiments of oblivion; they are also the felt now of suspended time and sepulchral ambiance. Grief is a way of signaling the ineffable to those stilled tongues under earth. Remembrance is a wan melisma tuned to the acoustics of our persisting marrow.
Dark themes are cushioned here and become instances of art by the very quality of saying. In “After the Funeral,” Prew casts emotion and vision into remarkable sound and symbol:
The river rocks solace to the hill
where the rowan rests ruined
from death’s decent rumor
and a best life is gone in a burst joy.
Ennui for a poet of depth is a peculiar trance state. Even as consciousness drifts before the horizon of death, the volume of space intervening is potential with new energies of language and perception. Out of the moribund of days might come a semantics of exceptional artistic irony. In “August, Departing,” the bare fact of the phenomenal world’s being, its parade of inexplicable aspects, and its proneness to amnesia inspire a sly sardonic wink:
The tide is loud with the drowned
and the windy chains of gulls.
The air smells of salty bone
and the womb forgetting.
By the rotting light I breathe,
counting the pretty darknesses.
Despite instances of levitation and beauty, these poems are requiems sounding an inconsolable harmonics. Glimmers of ostensible solace are, finally, subsumed in transience and a broken tongue. Even “Memory” is a futile refuge:
A scarred truth roaming bone. You fail
with a brave despair
like widowed songbirds, their throats full of graves.
I enjoyed this book of poetry so much that I found myself reading it three times in a row. Recommended.
Order chapbook from Lapwing Publications
Gillian Prew’s webpage is here
Posted by Tim Buck