There are perhaps only a couple-of-dozen poets I find myself returning to time and again. In the last year, however, Janet Sutherland has become one of them.
I own her four collections from Shearsman Books, which are, in order of publication, Burning the Heartwood, Hangman’s Acre, Bone Monkey, and Home Farm. Each of these books contains an embarrassment of riches, and the more I look into them, the less able I feel to convey just how much I admire this work. But in the spirit of not letting perfect be the enemy of the good, I’ll have a go here. I know it’s a spoiler, but the short version of this blog post is: do yourself a favour and simply read Janet Sutherland’s books now.
Certain themes and images recur throughout the collections. In the first of them, Burning the Heartwood, poems that refer to a Wiltshire farm background in poems like ‘an image of skin‘ are already in place. While in her second collection Hangman’s Acre we meet her character Bone Monkey, who gives its name to her third collection, Bone Monkey. This was the first of her books I read, having been told to do so by my pal Charlotte Gann. Many of the poems this collection contains are about this dark, Loki-like trickster, somehow bestial, but all too human:
Bone monkey knows himself a god
although his raddled arms, his ruined balls
and buttocks seem to say he’s less than that.
(As a God, from Bone Monkey)
I love the freedom the adoption of a dubious and unreliable character provides. In Janet Sutherland’s hands he becomes a violent, legendary figure.
Bone Monkey swaggers through a plain of thorns
crowned with insignia of warlike deeds–
emblems stolen from the wolves
are fixed securely to his skull with cords
(Emblems from Wolves, from Bone Monkey)
It was in the Bone Monkey collection that I first became enchanted by Janet Sutherland’s lightness of touch with images.
I think of memory
like three swans that sweep
over the river’s surface
of the aerial
and of the deep
or like the rivers’ flow
tidal and complex
at an estuary.
(His exposition on the art of memory, Bone Monkey)
The poet has no axe to grind and never seeks our pity. Instead there is alchemy. Personal experiences accrue a near mythical force, in imagery that is dewy fresh and deftly condensed. Images return hauntingly in her work, such as her repeated association of association of snakes with water…
little adders fall
out of pitch-forked hay
into the stooks
floating the swollen river
(Memory, from Burning the Heartwood)
This river’s a snake that opens its mouth
and sings, looping and undulating, leaving
a sloughed skin oxbow by its side.
(At Cuckmere, from Home Farm)
Culminating in the wonderful weirdness of these eels.
white water grinds over and over through this sieve,
and in that loneliness the eels come quietly, one by one,
driven by longing for a spawning place at sea. Slither
an eye across the peep show floor. The risen dark
pools where eels still hide trapped in a storage well,
somersaulting, tumbling and unbalancing.
(The Eel House, from Home Farm)
Home Farm, published this year, contains perhaps Janet Sutherland’s most autobiographical work. Here her childhood exists in several dimensions: in the awareness of the history of the land, of villagers who lived there before, of family history, in the names of fields and beasts and flowers, and in the suggestions of fleeting human experience, and the tragedy of lost memory. And the result is… Well, just wonderful.
For some reason, she makes me want to use the word ‘ontology’ for her poetry has a complex kind of ‘being’ that has, for me, proper heft and its own strange life. At her best, Janet Sutherland has the power to make her fabulously-realised world exist in the imagination as a place one wants to continually return to. I can admire lots of poetry, but there are few collections I genuinely love as much as these.