Penelope Shuttle
Sandgrain and Hourglass

Book Reviews

Published by Bloodaxe

“Grief,” said Queen Elizabeth II in a flash of insight “is the price we pay for love.” William Faulkner put is slightly differently: “Given a choice between grief and nothing, I’d choose grief.” While the American clinical psychologist Jon Brantner insisted that: “Only those who avoid love can avoid grief. The point is to learn from grief and remain vulnerable to love.” The lesson, of course, is that grief is a part of the warp and weft of life.

Grief forms the base note to Penelope Shuttle’s tenth collection Sandgrain and Hourglass. Born in 1947 in Middlesex, Shuttle has lived in Falmouth, Cornwall since 1970. The death of her husband the poet Peter Redgrove in 2003 inspired her last collection Redgrove’s Wife (2006), which was both a lament and celebration of his life and death. In the past Shuttle has admitted that she has suffered from that occupational hazard familiar to many poets – depression. But poetry’s ability to name the ‘enemy in order to fight your corner more powerfully’ has helped to deal with the feelings of loss and desolation. In this newest collection of more than 70 poems, mostly elegies for her husband, (though some are written in remembrance of her father), there is a subtle shift: “Nowadays / the most serious things / come into my heart / lightly.”

The book forms a journey through the process of mourning, and the poems are carefully ordered to that effect, from the despairing note of “You are lost to me forever” from The Keening, through states of magical thinking explored in The Scattering, an incantatory spell for the disposal of her husband’s ashes, and The Repose of Baghdad punctuated with lines of wish- fulfillment such as “If we ever meet again,” of “If I ever sleep with you again,” to the quiet resolution in the book’s coda – that “Happiness returns, after a long absence”, even if “she’s a very small creature indeed.”

Shuttle charts in lucid accessible verse her responses to love and loss that, as the actress Maureen Lipman wrote in the Daily Express, speaks very strongly to anyone who has suffered a similar fate. She is at her best when blunt and spare as in the series Heyday:

“Husband, take my greatest treasure –
this rogue tiger, Grief …
See, he has eaten all of me bar my hands.”

The power of this startling graphic image, where Grief is personified as a mauling tiger leaving only the writer’s tools, her hands, brings the reader up short, and is a reminder of the physically corrosive sensation of loss, as are the final lines of Handmaid:

“No one’s travelled so far as you,
my love,
your voyage a knife, my heart its apple.”

This is Shuttle writing in her highest register in contrast to the more conversational poems such as Taking Out the Drip that follow incidents in a way perhaps more suited to prose and where, occasionally, poetic tautness has been sacrificed to too much telling as in the first two stanzas of At the HospitalAt the Hospital – “Early morning, quite and lovely September” – when the poem really seems to take off in the third stanza:

“It takes us so long
to get you into the hospital gown
a nurse comes to investigate,”

Not every poem in this collection is about Redgrove. There is also a loving sequence of five poems in memory of her father, and a lovely poem, Edward SanEdward San, about translating Edward Thomas into Japanese: “Now it rains in orchards / in the land of the haiku.”

But what will make this collection read is its emotional honesty. Shuttle does not shy away from difficult emotions, does not smile sweetly and pretend all is well when, in fact her heart is breaking. There is courage here, and hope. In the final poem happiness is seen as a small spider “learning to spin her web again, / lodging modestly behind the washer-dryer / in the back kitchen,”.

Grief is, indeed, the price we pay for love and happiness returns in different and unexpected forms. The trick, as Shuttle writes, is to recognise it.

“I don’t ask for an outbreak of joy so major?
the police are called to quell it,
just your wren-song
drawing each no-longer-endless day to a close,”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright


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