Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Ribbons Of Song: Swimming Between Islands By Charlotte Eichler

The narrator of many of Charlotte Eichler’s poems could be a small girl. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she tells stories, and those stories are delivered with an ingenuous disregard for boundaries of metaphorical interpretation. This is fitting: unselfconscious, children do not fear the making of bold connections.

The pyrotechnic brilliance of Eichler’s poetry resides in leap-making, a fearless embracing of the unlimited possibilities of form and style, but most, of figurative suggestion: the gorgeously visual tercets of the opening poem of her new collection – ‘Islomane’ – give body to a tranquil space between thoughts, whose tone is isolate, languid, insulated against anything outside of the moment, like a child’s reverie:

‘With a toe in the water,
she leaves rows of pleated shells –
wedding dresses

and the trees filling
with a robin’s twisted
ribbons of song.’

Here, the poet crosses borders between the contexts of home, of what might be, and of exile, in a delicate concatenation of images that presuppose the natural fluidity of the collection’s dominant theme. The present tense – almost all of the poems here are conceived in the present – lends the work an inviolate immediacy, as though existing in the moment was the best means of apprehending that crossover from one sphere of experience to another, from place to space, as the book’s title suggests. An ideation of a view, Swimming Between Islands encapsulates not so much a transition as a complexity of impressions and emotions, a re-configuring of different states of being.

...drawing the reader into her universe of disordered reality, of myth and of historio-geographical tangents, the poet delves deep into unexplored backwaters for inspiration...
And it works to arresting effect. Eichler has gathered elements of her earlier pamphlet - Their Lunar Language - to reinforce a narrative of shape-shifting, of observations that drift with surprising ease between seemingly dislocated themes. To drift is her métier: her poems navigate a passage, encircle her journey as if all subsequent reflections could be contained within its compass. The twenty-one-year-old Lily Cove who takes to a balloon over Haworth Gala in 1906, becomes an airborne symbol in ‘Balloonist’, and plunges to her death when her parachute is inexplicably jettisoned. That the poem vouchsafes little of the documented back story is secondary to the narrator’s identification with the sense of freedom conferred, and the startling novelty of seeing, say Penistone Hill, from an unlikely aerial elevation. Borne aloft on the breathtaking excitement of the onlookers – ‘the black hats a penguin circus’ – Lily is launched into a kind of eternity:

‘somebody hangs
in the woods
near water,
or that feeling you get
at the edge of cliffs.

On the moors
the walls lose
their footing,
lurching up hills,
along scars.

The foreshortened lineation is cliff-edged as Eichler recreates a vertiginous, Hughesian terrain of anthropomorphic power.

Exquisitely skilled at projection, at drawing the reader into her universe of disordered reality, of myth and of historio-geographical tangents, the poet delves deep into unexplored backwaters for inspiration. Upending stones to discover hidden secrets, her eye is forensic, finding, like Isabel Galleymore, energy and industry in a world rendered steroidal by a microscope of the imagination. The three-part ‘Ant Farm’ is invested with the sense, if not the proportion, of the creature’s deepest impulses, and invites a striking consummation in the coagulated metre of species memory: ‘don’t / forget the burning / kiss of family / the formic scent / of home’.

The present tense ... lends the work an inviolate immediacy, as though existing in the moment was the best means of apprehending that crossover from one sphere of experience to another.
The vaunted ant eggs, polished to within an inch of ovoid, ‘porcelain’ perfection, reappear, in different guises, in the collection, knitting productively towards a kind of conceit. The ‘dropped necklace’ of cuttle fish eggs in the ‘glassy’, submarine ‘Clean White Bones’ is re-imagined as a nestled repository for developing embryos in a crossover that is a characteristic of Eichler’s heightened sensitivity to refulgent imagery:

‘If we could take their place
there’d be no mess,
just our children in the weeds
brightening like bulbs.’

Conveying an impressive simultaneity of fragility and lambency, the poet’s images are attentive to the minutiae, the suggestive detail. Even at distance. The altitudes that fracture perception in ‘Balloonist’ once more loosen grip in ‘Pabbay Cliffs’, a series of precipitous faces on Barra. Laying ‘Belly to grass’ whilst peering over the near-vertical drop, the narrator’s view of guillemots far below, ‘each precariously / at home’, need not obscure the strangeness of affinity, or the unfocussed possibility of nascent life thriving in despite. Her words are solemn, praiseful:

‘O warm egg bodies,
the rocks look soft
enough down there,
greened with weed.’

Charlotte Eichler
Charlotte Eichler
And it is good that the emphasis, here, resides squarely on fragility and endurance, a precondition of survival in ‘Hervör and Völund’, a re-calibration of Norse myth where ‘sky-blue eggs’ are restored to a place of safety, ‘where distance / softened everything to feathers’, as though viewed from a parapet high above the cliffs at Pabbay.

The impulse to protect, to nurture, to observe development, might explain the prevalence of child-centred poems. Or, at least, a projection that imitates childhood wonder in awed tones, but is measured in words that are at once beautiful, and mystically faithful to a moment of apprehension:

‘curl your hand
under them gently

three cool bellies
on your palm

slimy intimacy
with earth’ (‘A Meditation of Small Frogs’)

The invocation to capture the natural world afresh is repeated in the poem following, ‘Trapping Moths With My Father’, whose broken lineation and pauses create hiatuses for a closing in of vision, of another kind of rapt meditation: ‘Look closer : / their dark wings are inscribed / with eyes and feathers’.

Eichler’s remarkably acute sense of awakening, or of rediscovering earlier ground as though time had never elapsed between childhood and the present, is fitting in a collection without conventional frontiers. Failing to see territorial limits, the reader becomes acclimatised to the poet’s natural flow from station to station, time to time, material to metaphor. No longer cognizant of the fundamental intensity of Eichler’s language, her audience is gulled into a suspension of disbelief by the miraculous pliability of her storytelling. The cavernous expanses beneath long grass in ‘Mary, 1903’, concealing ‘butterflies all closed, / ashy underwings like burnt letters’, are entirely persuasive in the context of another historical moment, in a garden in Cottingley, where fairies were ‘magically’ conjured, to the astonishment of Arthur Conan Doyle and a credulous public ravenous for phantasmagoria.

...Eichler’s breathless audience is superimposed, cast into the wild fastness. And especially into extremity...
There is a diaphanous quality to the poet’s thinking that superimposes a luminous film over her tableaux, reifying the received effect to the point of transformation. ‘Goblincore’ repeats the exercise in concealment and revelation: here, Eichler invents an argot, a belief system and a strange inversion of mores to describe a terrain tangential to our own, tricked out in the attire of an underworld:

‘We live life close to the ground
crouched and smoky,
sharing each other’s illnesses,
taking them on like charms.’

The overlap is key. The leeching of one world’s shadows into the next, or the divulging of folk memory, of myth, into our realm of cynicism and pragmatic disbelief, does not lead to divergence in Eichler’s seamless rendering. Nor is there a sense of spatial dislocation: her mesmerising interpretive skills draw alien landscapes and cultures into authentic view, or rather, they encourage the reader into the new picture as efficiently as a filmmaker in a cinema of the imagination. From the inversion of topographical perception in the mirrored depths and mountains of ‘Into the Fjords’, to the diving gannets ‘hitting the water / under a fishbone sky’ in ‘Mousa, Shetland’, Eichler’s breathless audience is superimposed, cast into the wild fastness. And especially into extremity: the dramatic isolation of ‘Kaktovik’ embodies an image of enclustered ice in an Alaskan bay whose climatic violence makes a necessity of endurance. An otherwise inert and frozen plain is given vengeful figurative form as ‘the snow sprouts claws, / pads through the streets after dark, cracks its teeth on the bones we left behind’. The scavenging polar bears whose home is in the distant ‘blue’, animate a landscape of mammalian slaughter and evisceration, where the wind may be heard as it ‘flutes through the whalebones’.

...her audience is gulled into a suspension of disbelief by the miraculous pliability of her storytelling...
And here is one example, amongst so many, of this poet’s facility for distilling the inherent drama of what she perceives into perfect metaphors. If her feel for time and location is limitless – she is rarely constrained by indices of linear chronology or spatial borders – there is evidence, too, of interior journeying, or ‘stationary’ travelling between opposed ideas within one, apparently circumscribed, space. ‘The Fifty Year Traffic Jam’ describes a subsumation of the vehicular by the natural world, or rather a conflation of the two in images that naturally coalesce as a process of assimilation evolves. Eichler’s eye for colour and texture is never less than utterly convincing; we marvel at her ability to convey delicate tinctures in precisely-judged metaphors:

‘and oily pools collect

electric dragonflies
with copper wire wings.’

And again, in a poem that distils the odd inversions of tone, and the shifting of mood in and amongst the overripe architecture of the season, we find alliterative beauty in oleaginous dissipation:

‘Here we are unburied –
we lug our spirits
and our winter fears
in backpacks until we find
the waterfalls and whisky pools,
the woods’ distillery
with copper guts
and leaf clot underfoot.’

A little early in the literary year, perhaps, for making claims as to ‘best’ collections of poetry, but in the entirely subjective and unqualified opinion of this critic, Swimming Between Islands is in front by a length as we near the end of the first quarter.

Swimming Between Islands is published by Carcanet.

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