The Meaning of Things: Elaine Randell, Shearsman
There are some poets who have stayed with me for a long time, and Elaine Randell is one of them. I first came across her work in a 1970s copy of the Poetry Review, and her ‘Diary of a Working Man’, the first verse of which runs:
His arm is a brace
Shouting across the yard
the figure darts forward
slumps back, drops.
The arresting beginning reminds me of Basil Bunting’s “Brag, sweet tenor bull …” – an exact but also musically adept opening. Like Bunting, she has a true ear for the music of language and one sees this through her closely-written free verse. In this latest book, she writes of her love of nature in equally exact images that describes but also invokes the presence of place:
At the clouds of starlings
a sudden bequest as
the round, broad, elongated, flock shifts
funnelling and then thickening, thinning, spiralling, banking
on the edge, veering into and against the wind across the marsh
they fly united.
Look at those shifting -ing words emphasising the constant change of the murmuration of starlings across the sky, and even the way the lines themselves vary in length, like a constantly moving flock of words.
This might be a rather fanciful reconstruction of her method, but it does emphasise the care she takes in all her writing, both in the poems and prose poems and stories in this book. These more personal poems are only one aspect of her work, however. The other aspect is seen in the poems that come out of her work as a child and family psychologist and it’s this aspect that also drew me to her poetry.
One can see the same accuracy of phrase and observation in, for instance, the poems of ‘Hard to Place’, a sequence about children with severe traumas. She never uses language to manipulate your feelings, but her almost documentary writing reveals the feeling through the truth of the language. The author has nearly been excluded from the narrative, yet she is there as both the observer and the recorder of the lives of these troubled people:
It is noted that at the age of four years
he possesses a full and foul vocabulary.
His toenails were broken and bleeding caused
by his walking with his toes curled under. He
is a very anxious and tense little boy. It
is rare for him to show affection but he is
anxious to please. His birth occurred an
hour after his father had kicked his mother …
Some of these poems and prose poems are hard to read not because of their difficulty, as is often the way with poets associated with “experimental poetry”, but because of how close to the bone and real they are. She makes you feel for the families she writes about and makes you both angry and wonder, how do people get in such situations? Poverty and mental illness, violence and emotional and material deprivation are never talked about in direct terms but are the world out of which the poems and prose poems of the first and third parts of this book arise.
Randell has been writing in these two modes since the early 70s, and I think she is probably one of the best unsung poets in the country. Her poems never show off her linguistic acrobatics, yet she always finds the adequate phrase or image that gets to the heart of the issue in front of us. I could spend time talking of the influence on her of such writers as Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen, the Objectivist poets; but she takes that influence and applies it to a very English situation.
This book also contains two prose meditations on her late parents, which give some background to her life, but I think her poetry is some of the sharpest being written today. Recommended.