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“Redgrove's Wife is a testament to Shuttle's creative dexterity”

The Wolf Interview: Penelope Shuttle - review by Poetry Magazines, Summer 2005

Redgrove’s Wife is Penelope Shuttle’s ninth poetry collection and arguably her most important work in a

successful career as a poet spanning twenty-five years. In her first book with Bloodaxe (surprisingly Carcanet

didn’t republish her) we find Shuttle at her most open and veridical. These are poems written during 2000-

2005, a period when she lost two of the closest people in her life: her father and her husband (the extraordinary

poet Peter Redgrove).

Those familiar with the conjuring abilities of Shuttle's previous work will not be surprised that she offers up

something of an unusual grief map. Though we realise from the outset that Shuttle is writing through loss, she is

frequently found to be objectifying it or looking for ways to transform death into a renewal of life itself. Many

of the early poems in Redgrove's Wife place an importance on everyday objects or rituals that are tempered by

absence. A pair of Redgrove's shoes are thrown out taking with them many walks together. A spider’s hustling

persistence and capacity for work shine as an example of forward momentum. Indoors we find Shuttle

perceiving that even A jug of water / has its own lustrous turmoil.

These, we sense, are observations essential to the poet if she is to find any cognizance in grieving. The strength

of facing her up to loss head-on while keeping faith in the world is a double-handed task and one that Shuttle

is candid about. As she explains…I am trying to love the world / back to normal.

The book's opener, Songs, mourns through waterish eyes full of ghostly greens / and golds. Tears, initially shed

for her father, move through the air to coasts and orchards where her vision of grief exists alongside the

memory of a father-song that glistens with rubies and diamonds. Ultimately in the poem, Shuttle's memories of

her father invite the idea of ‘beauty and history’ as a way to outlast her own anguish. The quick-moving imagery

in this tightly-packed poem is powerfully yet concrete. It's writing with a knowingness of the natural world as

a key to unlocking grief. Another early poem, To Be Whispered, is incredibly heartfelt throughout and it too

insists on open air, away from the house, where the poet is like an alphabet / refusing to breed in captivity: “If I

was twilight / or a cliff shadow, or one of those feline spiders / you loved / I’d follow in your new life as salt

water // not returning to the empty house / where nothing of you lingers.”

Missing You – a twenty-four-part poem sequence – is where we find Shuttle at her most exposed and

autobiographical. Many of the short poems are cleverly repetitive, suggesting the cyclical effects of grieving,

but they are not the best poems in the collection. Generally the series threads together well; the poems are

brave and frequently underscored by Shuttle's unswerving love for her late husband. Often we find Redgrove

being addressed directly and, at times, it almost feels as if we, the reader, are eavesdropping. The best lines are

poignant, even prophetic: “Death is the feather in your cap / the source of your fame / my darkest lesson.”

Despite its overall success, the Missing You sequence is a fringe overlong and not all the poems are winners.

Missing You #2, for example, with its overuse of multi-corporation names (cue Asda, Boots and Woolworths)

is visceral and honest but would be better off without constant high-street brand naming (wouldn’t all poems?).

It’s a little like seeing a close-up of a Pepsi can in a decent film noir. Disappointingly, the big corporations also

reappear in the otherwise excellent January x 2.

Essentially, Redgrove’s Wife achieves more when roping in the enigmatic and the ethereal and bringing these

elements into the natural world. The most re-readable poems delve outside domesticity and strive to reach

across rivers and continents. Missing You #6 ends: “You preferred astronomer’s weather / sciences of the birds

You were a prayer across the Orinoco / a Tiber fitting me to perfection.”

Throughout the remainder of Redgrove's Wife we find Shuttle taking on a wide sweep of writing styles and

subject matter with confidence and wisdom. Veering thematically from the earlier section of the book, these are

not poems strictly about grief. Totality and TheBat of Totality form half of the stunning Eclipse x 4 sequence

and are among the best poems in the book. Refreshingly un-British in pitch, Shuttle finds beauty in the ‘total -

dark’ before it loosens into brightness. The observation of the brief sun/moon eclipse is delivered with

luminosity and true poetic wonderment of what holds between the known and concealed world of, in this case,

light and darkness.

Elsewhere, months of the year arrive new-fangled and are expertly recast. September arrives as a floating

classroom / for studying the great lakes. April takes its ill wind from town to town…unfolding the emptiest lily,

the wettest rose. There are also quirky list-poems concerning post-office regulations and footnotes, plus some

hauntingly apocalyptic weather poems, The Glimpse being an ace example. As with previous Shuttle collections,

we find some subtly erotic poems; Azucar, with its cunning allusions towards self-pleasure show a trademark

audacity. It’s not much to other people…And it hurts no-one but me.

These are closely worked poems of inventive force and occasional humour (essential to a collection half-built

on lament) delivered, against the odds, in a climate of a double bereavement. Overall, Redgrove's Wife is a

testament to Shuttle's creative dexterity and resourcefulness, confirming her position in contemporary British

poetry as a distinctive poet of dynamic imagination.

James Byrne from The Wolf

"In the title poem of Taxing the Rain (1992), Penelope Shuttle wrote: "When I wake the rain's falling and I think,

as always, it's for the best, I remember how much I love rain, the weakest and strongest of us all; as I listen to its

yesses and no's, I think of how many men and women would, if they could, against all sense and nature, tax the

rain for its privileges." Even as recently as the early 1990’s this might have looked slightly whimsical to some,

but Shuttle's prophecy of the death-wish of monetisation and environmental vandalism is nowadays everywhere

confirmed, while her level, reasonable voice seems that of  "sense and nature", commending life as a self-evident

good against those who might claim to improve on it.

It is against this sturdy affirmation that Shuttle's work of recent years –Redgrove's Wife (2006), Sandgrain and

Hourglass (2010), and the new collection, Unsent – must be measured, for these are books overwhelmingly about

loss, following the death of Shuttle's husband, her fellow poet and frequent collaborator, Peter Redgrove. In

"Our Little Books", one of many poems addressed to Redgrove, Shuttle touches on the continual intimacy of

their literary relationship, where each left detailed marks on the other's work "till the poem untangled / and

became itself.// You called then fascicles, / bundles of words, / poems in necessary transit / from work desk

to world." The loss of Redgrove the man is also the loss of the fellow-writer, critic, adviser and listener, and the

new poems in particular lament the necessity of speaking into the abiding silence where he used to be.

Some readers, this one included, will go a long way to prevent biography getting between them and the Poems,

as it tends to with Hughes and Plath, or Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood, where critical inquiry sometimes gives

way to gossip, which in turn makes the poetry into a mere pretext for curiosity. Shuttle and Redgrove are less well

known, their relationship does not exhibit the X-certificate toxicity of the other couples, and both are poets first

of praise and revelation – complementary spirits, with (very roughly) Shuttle's the airier voice and Redgrove's the

more earthy:"we have often run away together /  into the park of storms / where thunder and his sister lightning

live". Their lives are properly part of the subject.

But these are lives greatly transmuted by imagination. For Shuttle and Redgrove, realism is almost a form of

exotica. Where Redgrove's work clanks and steams with spectacular scientific-metaphysical machinery, Shuttle

can evoke with the lightest of touches and a faith in the imagination's rightness. An early poem, "The Hell-Bender",

describes a salamander: "He is a summer beast, / nimbly folding the water into shapes / that suit him, / his

garments he might sleep or hunt in./ All feebler things are his serfs, his fodder."

This mixes the seemingly casual and the ceremonious issues in a kind of witty satisfaction stretching Back via

Bishop and Marianne Moore to the Old Testament. Alongside this is a mystical strain that seems peculiarly

English, seeking to "describe / the mastery of flowers / grazing the earth // like translations done / without

dictionaries". There is a wild, slightly mad humour, too. "Things You Can't Post", suggested by a Royal Mail leaflet,

takes the list poem to the point of derangement: "You can't post Pathogens in Hazard Group Four, / museum

corridors or false alibis, / air pockets, or the essence of Zen / or a comet or a moonbeam or a huge mirror /

intended to be sent up into the sky / to reflect sunlight on the winter cities of Russia, // or Filth."

"Thief", from Adventures with My Horse (1988), is a strange and, again, prophetic poem, ambiguously describing

the shadow who stalks all endeavour and ordinary happiness, but inviting us to consider his thefts as a challenge

of the kind involved in making art: "Each morning you open your eyes jealous as hunger, you walk / serpent-

necked and dwarf-legged. In the thief's distorting mirrors, / you go nakedly through the sky's moonless gardens

and pagodas / of envy that he gives you, the thief's gift, your seeding wilderness."

In the event, Shuttle's most recent work, where she looks squarely at loss, is often much barer: "eagle plus liver

plus Prometheus plus Zeus: / you do the maths". Shuttle catalogues her husband's vast book collection – "so many

only God / has time to read them all" – for sale, "having no more use for them, / not caring to interpret them

alone". Yet "On the Other Hand" concludes: "I live mostly without care, // you know? // the way a solid autumn

hour / carries all care within her fist."

This austerity is a way to challenge a loss that might otherwise be unanswerable: "the standing stone of time /

says to me – / get a life, girlfriend" now that the "empty world tells me / we've heard enough about your sorrow,

missy". The artfulness is in the exposure itself, the bare stage, the bereavement not over but the imagination

still drawn to the impersonal fact of beauty, "as the full-leaf trees / buck their great green manes / in the strong

westerly // and the field shines / in a sudden bright elegy / of sunlight".

Sean O'Brien's November is published by Picador

Sean O'Brien enjoys an earthy collection of beauty and bereavement

‘Unsent: New and Selected Poems 1980-2012’  - review by The Guardian, 28 December 2012

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‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’, by Penelope Shuttle - The Guardian, 22 January 2011

To read the full review by Ben Wilkinson, please click here.

How we met: 47: Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove - The Independent, 15 August 1992

To read the full review by Esther Oxford, please click here.


Cornwall Contemporary Poetry Festival

Will be held in Falmouth, from Thursday 22

to Sunday 25 November 2018

Penelope Shuttle has made her home in Cornwall

since 1970 and the county’s mercurial weather and

rich history are continuing sources of inspiration.

About Penelope | Penelope Shuttle
Will You Walk a Little Faster? | Penelope Shuttle

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