(Oneiros Books 2013, price £5)
Bethany Pope’s latest collection Crown of Thorns describes itself on the title page as a ‘Marriage of Forms’. Indeed it is the formal structure the poet employs in this book, with such elegance and apparent ease, which must be first and foremost admired. A marriage is a union and Pope’s collection, a complex weaving of narrative is conceived as a single poem which tells the story of family – Pope’s own family and her place in it. And quite a story it is too. The story is told unflinchingly through a series of sonnet crowns that are variously and ingeniously linked, by theme, by storyline, even by bloodline. The final section of the book ‘Bloodlines’, consisting of 45 sonnets subdivided into three sections is a further variation on the sonnet crown form described by Pope as an Emperors Crown. The result is an epic, almost biblical depiction of ancestral ties and the family tree to which the poet belongs. In the first of these 45 sonnets Pope writes The/History of family sets the future in its tread. This is the adage on which the entire book rests.
One gets the sense that for Pope, the job of the poet is to uncover what otherwise might be buried, to bare the unbearable. The poetry here pulls no punches – each sonnet unmasks something new, shocking, sad, pathologically revealing about the family history – and yet every line appears to have been carefully crafted with a deep sense of purposefulness and love. Pope is that rare thing, a genuine full-time poet. In a recent interview she says ‘I work on my poetry for eight hours a day… Because poetry is my vocation I treat it like a full-time job.’ But this job for her is not simply one of dishing the dirt or revealing uncomfortable family secrets in a sensational or garish way. Pope shows us clearly and impressively with this book, her second collection to date, that real art depends on form as much as it does content. It is her use of the sonnet corona, elevated to heroic and imperial heights and, finely enriched with acrostics, all so tightly constructed, that ultimately makes this collection such a moving and engaging piece of work. Pope is in full command of her poetic powers here and writes with a maturity and dexterity that belies her young age.
Crown of Thorns divides into four parts, focusing on four generations of family. The first, the title sequence, charts the origins of the parents, alternating between the two, Joy: Thorns, Unplanned second daughter, blond, gap-toothed, squalling and John: Blood, Your grandfather delivered you, slick from your mother. In the second part the poet addresses her brother, who was her mother’s favourite…her only son. It was natural and asserts Filial love is never easy; it comes with a cost. The poems forming the third part, ‘Rabbit Trap’,bristle with a visceral filmic energy and are perhaps, for this reviewer, the highlight of the collection. The narrative voice through this section is firmly rooted in the autobiographical ‘I’ and delivered with urgency, vulnerability and determination. This section begins with the scene of a road-kill Rabbit blood on my hands and concludes Dear child, be content with your breathing, draw an/invisible sheath around your exposed nerves./No merciful, slaughtering hand will descend to save you./Gather your strength; your turn with the knife will finally come.
Ultimately Pope mines the past the way an archaeologist might, uncovering clues, piecing together the parts that might tell us the whole. She invites the reader to dig too, into content as well as form, to discover messages that could be hidden. In the last epic 45 sonnet long section, ‘Bloodlines’, there is delicious satisfaction in finally deciphering the acrostic puzzle Pope has playfully laid out for us and learning, amongst other things, that Bethany was born laughing.
Cheryl Moskowitz, January 2014