Skip to main content

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


Popular posts from this blog

Poetry in Motion

POETRY IN MOTION Why one Reds supporter is committing his love for Liverpool FC to verse Liverpool FC and poetry have a lot of previous – from John Toshack’s Gosh It’s Tosh collection in the late 70s, to the verse of Dave Kirby and Peter Etherington in the fanzine Red All Over the Land , to the lines written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, a University of Liverpool graduate, in the aftermath of 2012’s Hillsborough findings. Now there’s Ben Wilkinson, Reds fan and book critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement , who’s compiling a series of poems commemorating the club’s legends. “Football is part of the fabric of life, and anything that’s important to people finds its way into poetry,” he says. “Wilfred Owen’s poem 'Disabled' describes a soldier who loses the use of his legs, meaning he can never play football again. Philip Larkin’s 'MCMXIV' compares boys queuing to join the army to fans outside Villa Park. These poems have stood th

Michael Hofmann - Changes

Changes Birds singing in the rain, in the dawn chorus, on power lines. Birds knocking on the lawn, and poor mistaken worms answering them ... They take no thought for the morrow, not like you in your new job. - It paid for my flowers, now already stricken in years. The stiff cornflowers bleach, their blue rinse grows out. The marigolds develop a stoop and go bald, orange clowns, straw polls, their petals coming out in fistfuls ... Hard to take you in your new professional pride - a salary, place of work, colleagues, corporate spirit - your new femme d'affaires haircut, hard as nails. Say I must be repressive, afraid of castration, loving the quest better than its fulfilment. - What became of you, bright sparrow, featherhead? poem by Michael Hofmann republished with permission of the author first published in The New Yorker from Acrimony (Faber, 1986) I've loved Hofmann's poetry since I first came across an old copy of what I still think hi

Louis MacNeice

‘World is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural’. Even if you’re not that well-versed in modern British and Irish poetry, chances are you’ll still know ‘Snow’, or a line or two from the poem will seem naggingly familiar. While still in his twenties, Louis MacNeice wrote it in 1935, and since then, it’s been a favourite with readers, writers and editors, cropping up in every kind of poetry anthology. Weird, then, that MacNeice’s work has often been seen as a footnote to that of his illustrious pal W.H. Auden, when he’s so clearly a hugely original poet in his own right. And when, among more recent generations, the likes of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Don Paterson and Conor O’Callaghan have all cited him as a major influence in their own writing. It’s not like ‘Snow’ was a one hit wonder, either. Despite some of the less exciting – and often lengthy – stuff he wrote in the early 50s, MacNeice only got better, perfecting his moving, atmospheric an