Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott


Ten years ago I had to submit a poetry portfolio for an MA in Creative Writing and cite my influences.  When my tutor, Professor Newman, read my list she said I wasn’t stretching myself enough, which wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. You see, I’m more of a prose than a poetry kind of a girl and always have been. However this poetry collection made it to the top of my must read list by virtue of it winning the 2010 Costa Book of the Year Award.

So what makes it a prizewinner?  The Costa judges said “these strong poems are rooted in the poet’s experience of breast cancer but are all about life, hope and play.  Fizzing with variety, they are a paean to creativity and make the reader feel that what matters to us all is imagination, humanity and a smile.”

Given that comment, I was expecting the poems to tell the story of the poet’s diagnosis, treatment, and cure.  This is not the case.  In fact the ‘C’ word is never mentioned and any references to her illness are oblique.  So in the opening poem, Of Mutability, we are told “Too many of the best cells in my body/ are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw…and your blood tests/ turn the doctor’s expression grave,’  while in the penultimate, Procedure, a cup of tea, “takes me back to the yellow time/ of trouble with blood tests, and cellular/ madness…”

The collection is certainly varied, though.  There are poems that make me smile, like Somewhat Unravelled, about her aunt’s dementia and Tea Death, about someone drowning in a cup of Earl Grey.  There are poems that challenge me to connect directly with the natural world, such as Night Flight to Muncaster “Reader, you’re an owl…You can hear clouds creak, droplets hiss” and I Go Inside The Tree, about an ash, “notice its colour/ – ashphalt or slate in the rain – then go inside.”  There are musical poems, such as the long titled Shapcott’s Variation on Schoenburg’s Orchestration of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Eb major, ‘St Anne’, with the deliciously sensual line “rub notes on to my skin to make the pores sing”; enigmatic poems, like The Black Page, with its equally sensual “strip off, fall in/ and swim in ink”; and poems that are clever extended metaphors, like Uncertainty is Not a Good Dog.

The strength of the variety is that it gives rise to some surprising juxtapositions.  So The Deaths, one of my favourite poems, (“I thought I knew my death”) is followed by almost-prose The Scorpian, another personal favourite (“I kill it because we cannot stay in the same room.”).  And the startling Viral Landscape (“I went outside and found the landscape/ which had eaten my heart.”) precedes the reassuringly concrete Myself Photographed (“So this is me. In the field after we got lost.”)

In the acknowledgements at the front of the book, the poet credits the artist Helen Chadwick as “the presiding spirit of this collection.”  Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with Helen Chadwick’s work, but for me there is a more obvious influence: the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Shelly’s poem Mutability, which links humans to nature (“We are as clouds”) and to music (“Or like forgotten lyres”) itself explores the nature of change, concluding with the paradox that only change is constant: “Nought may endure but Mutability.”

This isn’t a book to sit down and read from cover to cover in one sitting even though, at 54 pages long, it would be perfectly possible to do so. Read a few poems at a time, savour them as you would a good wine, give them space to reveal themselves to you.  I don’t say I like every poem. I don’t even say I understand completely the ones I like.  (And does that matter anyway? Why regard a poem as a puzzle that has to be unlocked?) But I do say there are some poems in this collection that I will be reaching for to read and re-read time and time again.  I’m sure Professor Newman would approve.

Overall rating: ** (Worth reading)

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