A Dream Of Lithium: Gifts The Mole Gave Me By Wendy Pratt
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
The poet John Dryden said that poems should seek to educate as well as to entertain, and his apothegm is corroborated, perhaps inadvertently, by Wendy Pratt's new book.
I couldn't have told you, for example, that the bacteria e-coli is more correctly known as Escherichia Coli, until I opened Gifts the Mole Gave Me. Or that Lithium is found in huge quantities in Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni salt flats, that Mirtazapine is an anti-depressant, or that the word 'pluviophile' means someone who finds joy and peace of mind during rainy days.
The arcana of uncommonly used terms are well-chosen here. They provide an ingress into a state of mind: windows on a troubled history, they are ameliorants at the protagonist's lowest ebb, and clarifiers and comfort-bringers when re-emerging into the light. And they bravely foreground a voice of experience.
This volume is shadowed like a cancerous lung by the suggestion of mental illness: the extraordinary maternal sensitivity which silently screams in 'Heart Shaped Box' and 'Stepping into My Own Footprints'; the almost unbearably moving description of the loss of a child in 'Learning to Cry Quietly', and the casual brutalities of relationships which ignite 'Jesus Heals the Blind Bullshitter' and 'Encore'. All act to roll up 'sleeves inside out', in Pratt's own prismatic expression.
'Heart Shaped Box' is, in fact, a perceptive dissection of juvenile behaviour: the overly self-conscious claims to 'independence', the knee-jerk 'folding' of 'herself from me'. The Goth daughter who might have been, makes a virtue of silk and black lipstick - teen habits of death obsession - with no understanding of the true nature of 'a head blown off' or 'how empty suicide looks'.
And how the girl is in fact shaped by the mother 'in utero'; how they bleed in unison, and how the mother figure feels the daughter's pain 'watching black days turn to weeks.'
The final word of each line adds up to an ingenious and genuinely moving admission of fragility in two summative epithets: 'she eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak', and 'I've been locked inside your heart shaped box for weeks.' Daughter and mother are one and the same; 'interdependent', to paraphrase the poet in the context of a later poem.
As befits a qualified microbiologist, Pratt has a forensic eye for the detail of decay. 'Fallen Sheep' is an artfully observed, Hughesian examination of the detritus of physical decline: with a surgeon's precision Pratt articulates a process of disarticulation.
The dispersion of an 'archaeology of death' littering fields in spring in the form of sheep skulls and vertebrae, is compared to an old lady in a nursing home's slumped, spittle-strewn physical disposition, as superficially presentable as lipstick on a corpse; 'a cartouche', in Pratt's words, 'of decay'.
The narrator's unsentimentality here, as elsewhere, is key to her scalpel's accuracy, but it is turned inward as a determinant of mood, a reminder of death's propinquity, and of her own crushing loss.
'Chapel' defines, again through the refractive glass of mood, the architecture of 'becoming' from the point of view of a child: a journey from innocence to experience is marked by the comforting desiderata of familiar detail becoming illusory; religious faith as insubstantial as a random jumble of church furniture, and as unlikely to bring comfort:
'It was the shadow of Jesus turning out to be
nothing more than a stack of chairs
in the storage space behind the organ.'
But nothing, in this volume, is defined by inertia. The free passage across landscapes both geographical and memorial yields an heroic and reactive resistance to abandonment.
Not least, an engagement with the powdered coshes of prescribed drugs. 'Dreaming in Lithium' converges the paradoxical promise of a Bolivian salt flat of the element's origin with the explosive symptoms of its medical ingestion:
'Powdered to a small pill it is
a bomb that will split the salt
from my core, realign my current'
The poem 'Hay (Na) Ku for Mirtazapine' performs a ministry of occlusive dislocation for the narrator. The series of short tercets are counter-intuitively cursive as they describe a flitting from dream to troubled dream in narcotic, and persuasively inexorable, thrall to the effects of an anti-depressant.
Pratt's 'madeleine' moment - a prescient remembrancer - is found in the poem 'In Search of the Perfect Purse', where a broken-zipped wallet containing ephemera whose meaning is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, is a conduit to elegiac memory for circumstances and love now lost. A Klimt hangs over a Parisian hotel bed like a 'blessing', as a red wine session where 'we forgot to save / our wits for art' disposes the lovers to a blurred and presumably uncritical discourse at the Louvre.
The poet is perceptive. Her use of metaphor in the service of description is strikingly original. Describing a seaside town rousing from the sleep of winter, the narrator transforms 'a wind / that whips grass on the headlands' into the warm light of Spring - 'Now someone's fed the meter // and we can all begin again.' ('In Scarborough').
A sense of re-emergence, here, is defined by the poet's engagement with a terrain which is familiar and consolatory.
'Pluviophile' is a peaceful communing, drawn in a synaesthesia of fine metaphors, describing contentment and re-birth in the moment. The quest for sensual satisfaction continues in 'Directions' which, quite literally, takes the reader on a journey through the rural hinterland of Scarborough, whilst rendering a psycho-geography of its ancient history in a deeply lyrical echo of a Robert Macfarlane odyssey.
Pratt knows this area like an intuition, and the place is aggrandised by the rigour of immediate recognition. Her narrator flits, almost ludically, from scene to animated scene, capturing moments of recognition in mirrors, fleeting images of past and present, an harvesting of illumination in the punctum of the now.
Bringing a newness of approach to conventional conceits, Pratt's 'left field' vision sometimes finds anthropomorphic suggestion in her poetics of place.
Buildings have 'presence' in the sense of being repositories of memory and experience. In '25 Hibernia Street', the newly-wed house wears the feline intaglio of the 'ex' like a smell.
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Similarly, the sliding of 'Holbeck Hall Hotel' into the sea collapses the container of thousands of individual memories in one strange and counter-intuitive moment, as 'the intimacy / of a bedroom flashed open. A jacket still hangs // on the door peg.'
'Fuck You' is a glorious coda to a book about pain, grief and the struggle for re-emergence. A frank declaration of ageing, of self-image, and of physical and mental vulnerability, the final defiantly vocal lines restore a sense of acerbic parity to a narrative of uncertainty:
' This is nothing. Not to me.
So go on, laugh it up, turn away, whatever.
I don't give a fuck.'
As readers, we can but cock an approving snook.
Gifts the Mole Gave Me is published by Valley Press.
A Dream Of Lithium: Gifts The Mole Gave Me By Wendy Pratt, 6th March 2018, 14:07 PM