The Shadow Factory: Deborah Harvey, Indigo Dreams
Deborah Harvey’s fourth collection is very readable and accessible, augmented by notes at the back of the book. She has taken a range of themes, from ‘The Good Dogs of Chernobyl’, the first poem, to grief and family relationships, and explored the inhumanity that human beings can inflict, not just upon each other, but upon nature, on animals and on the opposite gender.
There’s a thread of feminism running through the poems, not misplaced in a poem like ‘The fragrance of Clara Schumann’. Clara is not intimidated by the behaviour of her cuckolded husband’s famous friend Brahms, but contemptuous:
he can’t get away fast enough once we’re done.
There he flusters, the famous composer,
cursing his collar stud…
… while I’m still spread on the bed, laughing,
sticky as the sweet jam tarts he likes
From the notes we learn that the poem is based on a quotation from Brahms about his greed for women that makes Donald Trump look positively gentlemanly.
There’s abuse and murder of women and girls in the background of ‘Sensible Shoes’, linked in the notes to the Fred and Rosemary West murders of women in Gloucestershire in the 20 years before they were caught in 1987. It’s a ‘what might have been’ story which the narrator’s friend has put behind her, making light of it. But the poem almost becomes a ghost story:
But this was before our January tour
of mid-Somerset churches
the final chancel carcase cold, with some vast presence
malevolent, old, cooped up inside
Much more chilling is ‘Nature Notes’, a list of incidents in which women and children have been abused and killed in domestic settings, and a comment on the damage done to those who survive.
There are ekphrastic poems on the theme of female empowerment or its opposite, too. Leonora Carrington’s paintings in a recent London exhibition are the inspiration for a sequence in which Harvey comments on Carrington’s relative powerlessness in comparison with “Maestro Max … Leonora’s shaman".
He paints her
tangled in briars and vines
she paints herself
frozen in the background
From the images in the paintings, as well as her biographical knowledge of Carrington’s emigré life, she deduces:
She is brooding mysteries in her head,
her unhatched visions sprout strange
feathers in their egg.
(‘The Giantess (the Guardian of the Egg)’)
Harvey’s poems about father-daughter relationships and about death are some of the strongest in the collection. ‘Complicity’ approaches a small girl’s feeling of inadequacy in her father’s eyes through his attitudes to the birds he feeds: “the dully-coloured, cheapjack jesters, the ones like puddles under cars he’d scare away”. But his daughter sees
a greenfinch deep in leaves, feathers mossed
with yellow edges, barred by shuttered sun.
Only something small and drab knows its beauty.
In the sequence ‘Black Seeds’ she remembers the death of her father in eight free-verse sonnets linked last line to first line by concepts and phrases. The form moves the sequence on through the roads in which she drives to reach her dying father, aware, too, that she must come to terms with “the wreath of black seeds that was lying / dormant at your core.”
Interwoven among these poems referencing gender politics and topical themes are landscape poems containing phrases of vivid beauty, visual and kinetic. In “Touchstone” she exhorts
Let your flesh feel the gravel of wind-thrown rain
the luxurious burn of summer gorse…
and the road back home is slow with cows
and quick with swallows.
Deborah Harvey’s sensibility is effectively rooted in the landscape, memories and stories of the West Country where she lives. In this collection she offers a varied bouquet of stories and meditations, gentle, yet tough in her honesty. As she says in ‘Try Yoga’, she writes to
feel the roar that is passing
silently through the mountains
as poetry’s teeth close on your nape
and it drags you
deeper into jungle.
It’s a good enough reason to write your world.