In her opening poem about the pilot Amelia Earhart, who disappeared in 1937 whilst trying to circumnavigate the world by air, Jemma L. King describes, ‘the heart that burst adrenaline/drilled it to the tips of grasping fingers/feeling life, even in the face of the spiked sea’. ‘Feeling life’ seems an apt summary of the force and passion of this début collection, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Dylan Thomas Prize. This is not a sentimental tinkering at the edges, but a full embrace of life and death, loss and longing in all their shadowy mystery. King’s penetrating observance of the often dark and sometimes brutal nature of existence is, as Katherine Stansfield writes in her endorsement, both ‘brave’ and ‘unflinching’.
Where there is light in the poetry, darkness is its close and haunting companion, and where there is life, death is biting its heels in raw and sensual imagery. In ‘The Beginning’, King writes of how the doctor who thought she had potential ‘tried to scissor me free/from my mother’, and then, ‘A shrieking red blade/was cursing me in waves’. ‘New Year’ closes the electric circuit of the past year in ‘bolting bursts of flowers and death’. In ‘Sun’, the poet observes, ‘…how wintered/a June evening/can look. Deceptive. Brass/embryo this morning –/now no one’s idol’; while in July she lives ‘as dust sits on a negative’.
Throughout the collection King strides headlong into the human potential for violence and destruction across centuries and continents, as in ‘Genghis’, ‘On this equine tank/is a man of blood./His women are split like fruit,/spored with armies’, and in ‘Armour’, ‘Skin suits of metal and canvas/hide the blood pumped tides of man,/saves from the ripcord of head caverns, exploding,/the suction of lungs expelled/through the mouth/under forces of Moab bombs’.
There is brutality of a different kind in the seemingly merciless indifference of the natural world, expressed in an outstanding poem, ‘Winter for the Robin’. King finds the robin face down: ‘His wings, glacial triangles,/mocked his form,/strapped him down/to the newly found grip/of the pond’. Meanwhile, there is a thrush fight at the bird table: ‘They are not mourning the missing friend./The hardness of the hardest of seasons/is designed to kill’.
Closer to home and exploring her internal landscape, the poet’s perceptions of her vulnerable self and her relationships are as brave and unblinking. In these more personal poems there is pain measured with tenderness. In ‘List’, she writes, ‘ 6. I haunt myself,/a bad photo/taken daily’; and in ‘The Kiss’: ‘I am beyond calibration./About as together/as the meat of sea water/choking apart./ Why don’t you call?’. In ‘Spring 2004’, there is fond memory following the hurt of divorce, ‘Remember how we waxed/with the trees/pushing/life forwards?’, and poignancy in ‘First week without you’ when she is ‘dropped off’ and reports back, ‘…girlish/and charged with the elements./But here, the sky/plays some/shaking concerto, unravelling/ionic webs,/and you are not here’.
In the journey into the shadows, there are diamonds of light in King’s analogies between human experience and the natural world and its elemental forces, which she handles with an exquisite economy of language and acuity. In ‘The Morning, Advancing’, ‘I settled like a baby/on the knees of dawn’; in ‘Coal’, ‘The coal was thick money/squatting under mountains’; and in ‘Viktor’s Trap’, from which the title of the collection is drawn, ‘If you can imagine a world/emptied/of sound, the softscape/of falling snow and/ceaseless mourn-/drift/erasing all but the/shape/of a forest’.
Although not a collection for a faint-hearted reader, there is intriguing and courageous scope here, and a balance best summed up by the poet’s own words in ‘December’: ‘My balance is not in/the abundance of light, but/a chosen flicker and crackle’. There is flicker and crackle in King’s beautifully structured poetry – unsettling, unnerving, illuminating.
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgment should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddio'r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.
Jemma L King teaches literature and creative writing at Aberystwyth University where she also completed her doctoral thesis. Winner of the Terry Hetherington Award for young writers in 2011, she has published her creative and academic work internationally. She is a founding member of the Centre for Women, Writing and Literary Culture and is a reviewer of contemporary literature for numerous publications.
These poems of desire, loss and revenge explore lives caught in the gravity of their own orbit.
Haunting, distinctive and sensual, debut poetry collection The Shape of a Forest has unblinking scope. This sophisticated debut collection moves from the historical to the contemporary: Genghis Kahn surveys his territory whilst Amelia Earhart disappears to myth. The Belvedere Apollo is dug up heralding the onset of The Renaissance as a tiger meets a foe in a Siberian Forest, the Pendle witches are hung in Lancashire, and in tsunami-struck Japanese gardens, South Sea islands and New York hotel rooms, lives are loosened like milk teeth.
The Shape of a Forest is a powerful survey of life and of human experience that spans centuries and the continents.
"The author of this powerful poetry debut...is one to watch closely ... The Shape of a Forest [is] both fleeting and resonant, both passionate and quiet, and I would advise you to get your hands on it"
New Welsh Review
"The poet’s skill here and throughout is to use language sparingly, yet tugging at every chord...striking through pleasant frameworks so that, as poetry should, it begs us to question the ever-changing state of the world we share with the rest of nature."
Wales Arts Review
Shorted for the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize. The Prize celebrates and showcases the best young writers under 30 from across the world and is one of the richest literary awards, offering £30,000 to the winner.