Mary Cresswell reviews Listening to the Night by Jane Routh

Jane Routh, Listening to the Night. Sheffield, UK: Smith/Doorstop, 2018. ISBN: 9781912196173

 

Mary Cresswell

 

The title is beautifully apt, and not as straightforward as it seems. Night sounds differ by what makes them and where they are made. Jane Routh wanders along a path between memory and memorial, giving us a tapestry of precise, meticulously ordered images.

At one point she warns us of the gap between the poem and the actuality:

What you write about your life displaces

remembering: instead of memory’s

murky mutability, the conviction

of the printed word.

(‘All summer long’, 52)

But her attention to detail distracts us from this caution. ‘There is a Place’, she says

where the cuckoo still calls until the light fades

in the cool green of the evening woods

 

where last year’s barley stubble studded through

with field pansy, daisy and storksbill

 

where larks still pin a cascade of notes to the sky

plummet earthwards and disappear into silence

(24)

Other poems reflect more of the night sounds we hear outdoors. There are owls, a lost echo of one killed on the road, another who

would settle above the open window

between the evening’s preparations

and the business of the night and shriek

(‘All summer long’, 52)

Swallows add their splee-plink as they leave Cairn Holy (33); there is the wind in the pines and the silences of no wind, many silences with that particular quality of the night outdoors where silence is not the absence of sounds but the space between sounds.

Some of the silences are inherited from the past. Someone was evicted from the house whose stone foundations are barely visible, and the place where the wife would have turned for her last look is clear from the path. Some left quietly. Others not:

But on my mother’s side,

Swing Rioters: they were having none of it,

…                                   Taken into custody

and tried in the assizes, next stop should have been

Van Diemen’s Land – yet not: too lame, too weak

to bother with.

(‘The blackberries’, 16-17)

And there are the indoor night sounds, the creaks and cracks of an old house, of one’s own ‘Body’, ‘not diagrams but breakdowns / (your own and each other’s)’ (44).

There are old things that make their own sounds, alerting us to what they represented to the past. An ‘Elegy for a book’ recalls the urgency (in 1974) to know everything there was to know about hedges:

Which of elm or thorn hedges

linnets or bunting prefer, now of no odds:

all those miles of surveyed hedgerows lost. …

 

the welter of facts

you thought you needed to know, adding

to the fools’ gold weight of nostalgia you hoard.

(15)

There is old furniture – odd fragments of childhood, but places are recalled more easily than people – a concrete poem of an old coat – and beyond place, there is past time, and old friends. Throughout most of the book, Routh seems to be carefully stitching together a tapestry of night sounds, carefully curated and examined in detail so that they form a natural history of her world, as it is now and as it came to be. And it is peaceful: most of the feeling that one gets from reading the collection – especially rereading it in one sitting – is that it is a diary of going gently [sic] into that good night. Death is one of the night sounds we hear as we lie awake in the house, or sense from being in the woods of an evening.

The quiet is exploded violently in two sections of the book, however. ‘Untitled poem’ (34) begins:

Eyes on the stainless blade

one millimetre from finger ends,

white crescents with their mottled rind

falling in rows

The poet specifically says this is not another poem about marmalade; it is a poem about grief, and her father’s death. It goes on, ‘Bitter juice tempered with salt’ and ends with a neighbour ‘asking if I could let her have his empty jars’. Hardly peaceful this, and the immediately following poem (‘Tap tap    tap tap tap’) continues

We muffle the dead with our monuments

but still they keep up a quiet tapping on the lid

and segues into instructions for cutting wood and catching ‘the full speed of the blade’.

The final poems present an owl beneath ‘January first-quarter moon / birch-gleam lightly chalked on the night’ (p. 55), waiting in hunting mode – a system at peace. But then the immediately next poem shouts a warning against the fungal spore Hymenoscyphus fraxineus – wind-borne, death to ash trees, and quite possibly an early representative of similar diseases. The following poem, ‘Wind and woods,’ starts with a high wind (unusual among the other poems’ relative tranquillity) and ends with the spores moving across the woods

to re-settle their invisible deadliness

on the clean new leaves of a sapling ash –

a self-seeded adventurer

which had been     heading for the sky

(58)

The quiet we have been travelling through is completely disrupted by deaths, one in the past and one in the future. But surrounding them, there is a history of life mindfully tended, appreciatively lived, and lovingly presented.

 

Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. She is a retired science editor and volunteers at a nature reserve and at a women’s centre. Her most recent book is Field Notes (a satirical miscellany) from Makaro Press, Wellington, 2017.

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