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Review: Colette Bryce's Self-Portrait in the Dark

Often as it might be said of first collections, Colette Bryce’s The Heel of Bernadette (2000) was a debut of genuine and considerable promise: its taut, economic lines combining everyday vernacular with deftly crafted images and a winning, often unusual musicality, to produce, in its finer moments, poems that were both intellectually provocative and formally agile. It suggested that a more mature and potentially brilliant second collection might follow, but for all its qualities – the poems’ stylish lines, their verve and meticulous execution – its follow-up, The Full Indian Rope Trick (2004), offered little in the way of real surprises, tending to reiterate (with a few notable exceptions) the winsome effects of Bryce’s earlier work.

‘A Spider’, the opening vignette of Self-Portrait in the Dark, quickly and quietly suggests that this new book will be, in at least certain respects, different. A sketch that takes the act of ‘trapp[ing] a spider in a glass’ as symbolic of the narrator’s own circumstances, the tight lines and subtle music of earlier poems are still in evidence, but Bryce makes these resources work harder than previously: manipulating syntax and repetition to conjure a well-pitched tone and convincing atmosphere (‘a glass, / a fine-blown wineglass. / It shut around him, silently’), while pushing her rhyming panache to achieve surprising metaphorical links:

I meant to let him go
but still he taps against the glass
all Marcel Marceau
in the wall that is there but not there,
a circumstance I know.

The effect is an impressive one. Bryce has the knack of making her poems look effortless when a restless intelligence is carefully at work behind them. But it’s when this hard thinking is combined with the looser lines of lengthier poems that the results are most pleasingly unusual and memorable. In ‘The Residents’, for instance, stanzas of slant-rhymed couplets are adopted to describe an eerie, dust-ridden study where ‘mould is blossoming on the wall’; a ‘funk-hole’ which seems to embody the anxiety of literary influence (note the Yeatsian refrain at the end of each stanza) as well as the writer’s fear of failure, especially when its richly described, dilapidated state becomes a reimagining of the room as a crime scene, where

if asked, you could offer a team from forensics:
– various punched-out blister packs
– a fingerprint in a lip-gloss compact
– a half-smoked menthol cigarette
– a woollen scarf unravelling on a hook
– a mildewed draft of her second book
– a culture thriving in her unwashed cup
– a single plimsoll, size five, lace-up […]

An almost darkly comic meditation on the nature of both the literary life and the decidedly contemporary enterprise of the literary residency, the poem goes on to end with these curious and suggestive tangents (‘posit[ing] a case of human combustion / perhaps, or an extra-terrestrial abduction’) cutting suddenly short: ‘skip[ping] three years / to a bright young novelist opening the door; / the inaudible snap of a spider’s thread / as he takes the first steps into your head.’ It succeeds – as in the sudden closure of the final end-rhyme – when the tone is pitched between indifference and a sense of resignation and regret, interrogating the speed of twenty-first century life as it affects writers, readers and literature itself, but also the feeling that much of our world is increasingly disposable and that nothing, not even literature (‘Is this a crime scene? Is it a shrine?’) is ever quite sacred.

Another commendable feature of this new book is its well-judged humour. In the title poem, for example, the narrator’s talk of insomnia, smoking habits and ‘moving on’ from a difficult break-up is smartly juxtaposed with wryly amusing observations: ‘Here, I could easily go off / on a riff / on how cars, like pets, look a little like their owners / but I won’t ‘go there’, / as they say in America, / given it’s a clapped-out Nissan Micra…’ So too, with greater subtlety, in ‘The Poetry Bug’: ‘a moon-pale, lumpish creature’; and the two women in ‘Car Wash’, kissing ‘in a world where to do so / can still stop the traffic.’ Bryce’s wide thematic range is also striking, even if the results are not always successful: ghosts, empty cars, mobile phones, mysterious dwellings and vivid childhood memories recur throughout the collection in poems that are frequently shrouded by cigarette smoke or a strange half-light. A particular highlight is the intricate conceit of ‘Volcanoes’, where the human imagination and the workings of the earth begin to mirror and merge: ‘The mind in the cavern of the skull. / The skull the limits of the skies. / The core in the dark behind the eyes.’

There are reasons to suspect, however, that the renewed depth, wit and imaginative range of Self-Portrait in the Dark may go unmentioned, even unnoticed, by some critics and readers, and this is largely due to the combination of Bryce’s succinct and swift-moving poetic style with the difficulty of uncovering the sometimes elliptical significance of her work. Starting this review with two relatively close readings of Bryce’s poems was an attempt to offset this – the notion that fluent, musical and energetic contemporary poems yield their meanings quickly and cleanly without warranting a great deal of rereading or deliberation. For while there are poems in this book which seem a tad hurried and glib (‘The Knack’; ‘On Highgate Hill’), the majority see Bryce developing a muscular and graceful language capable of dealing with everything from the grander themes (the solitude of ‘Finisterre’; the failures of language in ‘Sin Música’) to the specifics of contemporary life (the junk inside a phone box in ‘Belfast Waking, 6 a.m.’; the detailed introspection of ‘Self-Portrait in a Broken Wing-Mirror’). Reading this book through for the first time is something of a mixed experience, but if the poems are given the time and thought they deserve, Self-Portrait in the Dark reveals itself to be a complex and often richly rewarding volume.

first published in Stand magazine