The opening line of this collection, “I who am what the dead have made“, leads us straight into the mood of the poet during the years when these poems were written (1975-78) as she was approaching her seventieth birthday. She sees herself as a word (“I myself the spoken word”, “Voices of wind and water / Have uttered us from the beginning“), an utterance of the past, of her ancestors, of the land they lived in (Scotland and Cumbria). Something it seems she turned her back on to a large extent, but now returns to.
“What did I hope to find when I turned away from her …?‘ [her mother] she asks in one poem, and in another “Do I return / To the presence of the garden / The same, or not the same?”
And what did she find, what did she go through, while she was away? Is this it, in a poem called Christmas Children? “Little children running / Each in a paradise” among “London’s many-coloured fairy lights” and “Tangerines, sugar-mice, a star, / Here and now boundless / Their merriment.” But, she finishes, “the dark hells walk past them unseen.” Was that it? No, though it was there, as it is for all of us. For in other poems we find “yet this world, / Dark to the gods, how bright a paradise / When the heart loves …”
Another poem begins “Paris it was called ...”, was, not is, for to travel to this Paris she would need a time-machine.
Kathleen was above all a mystic. I will call her Kathleen here, for I called her Kathleen when we spent hours discussing Blake’s poetry and Blake’s form of mysticism. (And what I have in my hands is a signed copy of this book that I am reviewing now, years later.) Kathleen was a mystic and the great poems and prose of her middle years all give expression to this (or attempt to, for, like all true mystics, she knew it to be ultimately inexpressable), and here too we have lines such as this (from In My Seventieth Year):
It is enough, now I am old,
That everywhere, above, beneath,
About, within me, is the one
Presence, more intimate and near
Than mothering hands or love’s embrace
And since the utterance of the one
Majestic voice raised me to life
I am the part that I must play,
I am the journey I must go …
Which brings us back to where I began this review. At the end of the book is a small section of Short Poems, which is where you will find these gems.
“Ah, many, many are the dead
Who hold this pen and with my fingers write:
What am I but their memory
Whose afterlife I live, who haunt
My waking and my sleep with the untold?”
“I could have told much by the way
But having reached this quiet place can say
Only that old joy and pain mean less
Than these green garden buds
The wind stirs gently.”
“Young or old
What was I but the story told
By an unageing one?”
Perfect. Her name, and some at least of these poems, should be on everyone’s lips.