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Shakespeare On The Rialto: Driving In The Dark By Jean Stevens
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
If poetry book titles sometimes act as compound interpretive metaphors for what lies within, then Jean Stevens' new collection, Driving in the Dark, takes the reader on an unusually eventful journey through urban and rural landscapes of memory, over terrain littered with stoical, conflicted, heartbreaking figures who appear and disappear, rise and fall on the page like strange archetypes.

Stevens' is a way of seeing through glass darkly, and, in a second titular interpretation, of declaring psychological uncertainty and unease in images of real pathos. Her odyssey is neither wilful nor uncontrolled: her approach is measured persuasively against thematic subtitles which test the tonal water.

Taken as a whole, the four sections here - 'Another Place', 'Another Life', 'Another Love', 'Another Day' - reflect the kind of deliberate temporal detachment which enables an affecting poetics.

'Another', in this sense, both precedes, and runs parallel to, the present. The imageries of landscape and the people who litter it, are simultaneously of Stevens' narrative voice, whilst being removed, by time, from compromising the integrity of the shaping hand.

And that hand is steady at the tiller, which may be a surprise given the ad hoc and eclectic nature of Stevens' background; from published poet, to playwright to actor, this Lancashire-born writer maintains a keen eye for formal nuance, and the working of complex, emotive abstractions into relatively condensed spaces.

The easeful drift between iambic and trochaic metres, and a taste for assonance over full rhyme, gives the collection a needful linguistic freedom, a sense no better evidenced than in part one, which deals with the topographies of the Yorkshire Dales, where Stevens now lives, and the purlieus of earlier visitations and residences.

Inhabited by ghosts, some of these poems broach a direct dialogue with the past: the opener 'Cartref' details a seductive Laugharne whose resonance of Dylan Thomas provides a 'solace in words' where a sense of home is elusive.

Whilst 'Mediobogdum Roman Fort' details the tortuous meanderings of the Hardknott Pass against a backdrop of the endurance of Roman soldiers in metaphors of 'loaded clouds' and 'raw' sunlight, the poem 'Like smoke' captures a possibly real, possibly spectral presence in a beautifully drawn, double-edged 'idyll'.

Stevens' relationship with the present and the past is conditional: 'Hidden' begins 'When I first came here'; 'Viewpoint', by contrast, angles Pendle Hill from the perspective of both, acknowledging that the disposition of the land from the west echoes her own life's reversal. The poet's 'path' to the past may be cinematic, literal or imagined: 'Miners', like Barry Hines' novel The Price of Coal, yields a brutal rendering of the figurative cost of coal mining.

Envisioning a seductive but clichéd variant of resolute pitmen in a 'growing procession' to the music of Cwm Rhondda, the dream is exploded at point of lived experience when retrospective ghosts re-appear to haunt the narrative in a remorseful evocation of Aberfan, lung disease and the internecine conflict of 1984:

'My reverie's broken by colliding rumbles
the crash of a roof caving in, the slither
down the hillside of a slagheap on the move.
All that's left are blind pit ponies, dead canaries,
silicosis, the poisonous word Orgreave.'

Reverie is never far from being shattered here. The rural idyll of 'Skeleton' foreshortens the attrition of time in the reversal of a death on Malham Cove, from whitened bone at its foot to the teetering brink at the rockface's top, to the irony of a 'simple choice' made at the day's start.

The ghost in the room reappears in 'After the Manchester bomb' which cleverly replicates the innocence of a child's perception in a world of cataclysmic brutality. The truncated, monosyllabic lines mask a profound disquiet at loss, where the thing most needful is now absent for ever - 'her sister Vicky helps her when she's stuck / but Vicky isn't here.'

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An acute observer of idiosyncratic characters whose lives are, or have been, defined by their experiences, Stevens' evocation of people, especially against a background of endurance, is persuasive and deeply moving.

The nonagenarian 'Beatrice', a former Cambridgeshire farm-girl whose life was etched in agrarian toil, retreats into memory as 'those days fold back into each other', whilst in 'Charabanc', the working class mother whose stifled ambition - 'good things are not for the likes of us' - is mitigated by the directing of a bus's 'mobile choir', is also laying claim to a kind of social parity, alongside community solidarity.

More thought-provoking still is the sense of stoicism which underpins these insightful character vignettes. The painfully-drawn 'Fell Farmer' might be an R. S. Thomas portrait of acceptance in the face of the privations of upland sheep-farming, and finds the numinous in the (extra)ordinary.

This 'Boudicca' aloft her tractor is an embodiment of virtue in humility and strength - 'tilting into the sunset, a disciple / of the mountains, her face made only of light.'

Following a similar thematic conceit, 'This is the man' retails a life lived on the edge, in the Outback of experience, now reduced to taking 'twenty / minutes to dress', unable to breathe. Stevens' instinctive integrity yields a counter-intuitive and life-affirming corrective:

'But yesterday I saw him riding his bike
under an English sun, not knowing he was

observed. Racing downhill, he took his
feet off the pedals, fingers off the handlebars,
hurtled over the cobbles whooping like a child.'

The suggestion of a Jeanne d'Arc messianism in the poem 'Fell Farmer' takes literal root elsewhere in this diverting book. The highly original 'Walking Madonna' reinforces the mental resilience of the women in both poems.

Gazing at Elizabeth Frink's sculpture in Salisbury Cathedral, Stevens ascribes a corollary toughness to the real Mary, with a convincing, if imagined, portrait of attrition, where she 'remembers how she was torn apart / by what had been and was to come // as she gave him life among the cow dung / under a dirty sky.'

Jean Stevens' great poetic gift is insight, and the subtlety of her approach in the most introspective section of a book which contains so much of sustained value, is determined by historical experience.

Within its wide compass, 'Another Love' describes the pain of emotional loss, the re-balancing of memory through the prism of time, and the turning of malignant rancour into something more benign and endurable.

Shadowed by the spectres of illness, broken relationships, and relationships that might have been, Stevens' narrator finds cathartic strength in the process of re-examination: from the self-lacerating and deeply moving 'The High Wood', which forces a consummation of the imagination, to 'Listening to the Thunder' where love is the unspoken axis in an inexorable separation by waters both literal and figurative.

At her very best, Stevens' own messianic impulse affords the reader a window on the transcendent. Receiving the worst of news at 3am from the other side of the world, the narrator of the poem 'That night' summons, in powerless desperation, the beneficence of the cosmos to give comfort and help, and in so doing, yields to metaphors of pure, unconditional love:

'Send the sun round the earth to me
And I'll ship you the crescent moon
to carry you in its curve
as I first held you
when you came to me
through the pains.'

Driving in the Dark is published by Naked Eye.

Shakespeare On The Rialto: Driving In The Dark By Jean Stevens, 12th March 2018, 20:30 PM