So the Sky: Valerie Lynch, Dempsey & Windle
Valerie Lynch, who is aged 90, was born in Hertfordshire, but spent many childhood holidays visiting Dorset relatives. Although she has been writing poetry all her life and has had poems published in a number of literary journals, So the Sky is her first published collection.
Land, family, the sense of belonging and the freedom of losing it are the themes she brilliantly develops in this recent pamphlet. Her poems are readable, involve original imagery and captivating alliteration, and a possible surreal dimension beyond the ordinary.
The magic appears on the first page where her grandfather “lost his house to the horses”, but does all he can to find some decorations for his granddaughter’s Christmas tree. He believes in the magic created by “silver flying things//of paper and wire”, a world that Lynch crafts in her poetry. The “practical men/who calculate/distance and winds” are contrasted with others who are “urgent/with dreams” (‘Landings’). This imaginary ‘reality’ is described in the pamphlet’s title poem ‘So the Sky’; the narrator dreams up “a room/without roof, so the sky/can come inside”. It opens to nature, challenging conventions and useless protections, risky but also an escape from ordinariness and boredom.
Lynch’s poetry is rich in sounds and alliterations, creating musical lines that sketch impressionistic pictures:
The iron pot bubbled and hissed
and the wind came in whistling and sniffing
the sharpness of onions, the scent of
half-awake woman, and the fresh-mown grass
uncurling in early sun.
(‘The iron pot’)
A developing, if not dominant theme in the collection if that of the poet’s family, and its links to the land:
I said it’s my land
I come and I go as I will
to seek out my ancestors
And they said
‘We came home to our father’s hearth
and the song of our brothers.
You come and you go as you will,
but where do you come home?’
(‘Ancestors, West Dorset’)
There is a profound sense of history deeply rooted in the ground but, at the same time, the mind feels free to wander:
I lived myself into this land
where long slow winters
stretch thin over Chesil’s reach
and nothing moves
only the mist that slides across
the shore and holds me fast –
and skies, that fall and fall
and seek the sea.
It is a land of dreamy landscapes, real and unreal, even surreal, but also present in the narrator’s story as a blurred reference point. In this land her family settled and grew, and her memories, especially linked to her grandparents, flourish in moving lines:
I used to sit behind them and study their ageing skins.
The back of grandpa’s neck was cratered with twisting lines
all over its bullish set, the bark of weathered oak
after seventy working years
Grandma’s watchful eyes keeping guard on
her black burnt pots on the old kitchen range
in her two up two down and cold scullery out the back.
(‘She stood in the waves and laughed’)
Their silent presence reflects patience, tolerance and love, and their death and burial connect once more the poet to the land, the physical ground, with mysterious implications.
Some of the poems of the collection explore the significance of being a stranger and the awakening of a woman’s identity, two topics that are subtly connected. Strangeness is a complex concept Lynch explores with singular images that make the reader rediscover an actual ordinariness:
Strangeness is brilliant and fragile
as a child’s first word. Feel it:
you may sense the burn
of iron rails in midday sun,
or river mud sliding coldly away
beneath bare feet.
Reach down, bring up that clutch
of teaspoons there at the side.
Their glitter drains away in a silver mist.
After all, they are ordinary
teaspoons. You have only to open
the drawer to see that.
This topic is more directly described in ‘Undesirable’ where a refugee is expelled from the country and considered “a migrant,/or a failed person”. This comprehensive vision works both at a human level, as we need to welcome those excluded, and at an abstract level, where the land the poet belongs to is open to everybody and is also the place where her imagination wanders. It is a woman’s world in which the soul is “Hunched and yellow//…Compressed by the weight of a hump/and battered by fists of wind.” However, she resists:
She breathes, and goes on.
Inside this soul is something more.
A woman who triumphs,
(‘What would your soul look like?’)
The collection closes with ‘I Came Home to the Hills’, an engaging poem that reiterates the poet’s connection with the land and with her ancestors, as well as opening up to a wider perspective “arm-in-arm with the wind”. These are revealing poems that explore a person’s bond to their affections, as well as their freedom from them.