Scarlet Tiger reviewed by Martin Malone in the current issue (64) of The Interpreter's House.
You were right: it was never just about butterflies.
Scarlet Tiger by Ruth Sharman. Templar Poetry. 78pp; £10.00, ISBN 978-1-911132-10-3.
Five years on from my own – somewhat callow – Straid success, it’s a pleasantly humbling experience to encounter the mature wonders of Ruth Sharman’s 2016 award winner, Scarlet Tiger . Her first collection, Birth of the Owl Butterflies, was published by Picador, the title poem having won second prize in the Arvon International Poetry Competition and this, her sophomore effort, builds upon the considerable strengths of that debut. Sharman is a poet of craft and poise, capable of dealing anew with the great thematic staples of loss, parenthood and domestic life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the superb elegiac sequence that opens the book. If ever one needs a finely modelled example of Hemingway’s advice, to “write hard and clear about what hurts”, then look no further than Part I of Scarlet Tiger . The sequence takes a courageously unflinching look at the bleak physicality of contemporary dying, with its attendant technology and agonised prolongation. This is impressively realised in ‘Morphine’, a poem that showcases many of the collection’s great strengths and about which I could write much:
Even your lips, even your toenails hurt, and nothing
is easy – eating, breathing – your life
dependent on needles and tubes, the shadows
of your blood pulsing under plastic while you’re sleeping,
our heart just ticking over.
The role of loving witness is handled, here, in a manner that sets the sequence apart from many another in the same vein: Sharman’s quick eye for the heart-breaking detail never offers overmuch and always works in tandem with her sense of sequential unity. So, the poet’s relationship with her father is bravely renewed in even the most trying circumstances, like at the end of this poem when there are artful linguistic re-caps of Dad’s lifelong passion for butterflies. Bonding daughter to father in the way such mutual interests are inclined to do, this shared phenomenon is used subtly throughout the collection to bind it together and provide satisfying trig-points for the reader. This is all set up beautifully in the opening poem, with its urgent sense of mortality and the passing on of arcane knowledge:
Because we’re running out of time
for you to talk and me to listen,
I want to get things straight –
Now that is how to begin an elegiac sequence: with a boldness and clarity of statement evident throughout a collection which is, nonetheless, nimble as a butterfly at times. ‘My father’s note’, for example, has a wonderful switch of pace around halfway, that turns on the bald phrase ‘But the way I see you’ and moves from the presently dying parent, ‘falling/ in the field behind the house’ the air rasping from his lungs ‘like nails on emery board’, to the remembered father of his prime ‘still darting down some forest track / pursuing a flash of blue or silver’. There is something so human and instantly recognizable about this, yet in such capable hands, the sequence reminds us that everyone renews the elegy in the image of their own loss. If they’re doing it right. As is abundantly the case here.
Sharman has a fine way with simile, another characteristic that somehow stitches this collection together. Examples ‘like the tops of those cottage loaves/ they used to serve in the Lyons Café.’ (‘Brown hairstreak eggs’), ‘passing like leaf shadows’ (‘The June Gap’), as easy to miss/ as the moon in daylight’ (‘Make- believe’), and ‘fused like the vertebrae of some prehistoric spine’ ('After the fire’) evidence a compositional tic which unobtrusively establishes what we like to call the poet’s ‘voice’. And the unities of the overall collection, alluded to earlier, can only be achieved by a poet on top of her game, writing with intelligence and craft: across all three parts there is an adroit patterning of repeated motifs and verbal echoes from earlier poems that is most effective. Again, these are most often registered via the poet’s shared interest with her father in the natural world, which provides the collection with its delicate latticework of butterflies, moths, flora and family lore, apparent in poems such as, ‘At the LHC lecture’, ‘Silver washed fritillaries’, ‘Pyramidal orchid’ and the collection’s title poem. Sharman, too, uses her rhetorical structures well (though the four ‘Not-not-nor- but’ type poems I counted, here, are perhaps stretching that particular method somewhat). These give the book a trademark clarity of expression and are never less than convincing poem by poem: a good example is the tender ghost poem from Part III, ‘Love that Pink’
Enter my mother
not in the latter-day sheepskin
or that sad brown scarf
but sweeping across our lawns
in a cream dress…
Part II moves on from the elegiac material of the opening sequence, widening its focus to take in the topics of parenthood, relationships, friendship, and the home. There are some fabulous and tender poems about the author’s son and his growing pains, such as ‘Curtains’, Make- believe’, ‘Stammer’ and ‘Dens’, again each linked in little thematic flurries that carry the collection along in its elegant flow. ‘Seeing God’ is the best poem about a Velux window you are ever likely to read and a testament to the convincing strength of this book is the fact that, were I Sharman’s eponymous neighbour and I’d read ‘Sally’s Fence’, the offending barricade would be gone overnight. Who says that poetry changes nothing?
The craft and poise on display throughout this collection never really lets up. Part III provides us with something of a tour de force through Sharman’s poetic toolkit, exploring an even wider range of technical approaches, themes, structures, and concerns via a series of landscape and art-related pieces that yet reprise motifs from the opening sequence. Again, the poems benefit greatly from the confident simplicity of their construction and diction. The eco-poetry of ‘The parable of the Sower’ being a case in point: opening with, ‘The wonder is/ they exist at all’ and clinching its rhetorical point at its conclusion with, ‘these few timely reminders/ of all we stand to lose’. Such apparent simplicity is much more difficult to achieve than might be imagined, and must be earned by the quality all around it. If I had one minor caveat – and here I am nit-picking – it would be to ask if, by adhering to its three-part structure, the collection dissipates some of the wonderful energies of its earlier sequence? Whilst the quality of execution never lets up, Part III can start to feel like a good run of workshop-produced poetry, particularly in the series of ‘after ’ poems, which look like the product of a course in ekphrastic response (I recall that Pascale Petit passed through that way not long ago). Now this is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, and the technical strengths on display never dip. But by the end, I found myself impressed by the skill yet yearning for the visceral and essential qualities of Part I. These are, however, small concerns plucked from the embarrassment of riches to be found in Scarlet Tiger .
As worthy a winner of a collection prize as you are likely to encounter for some time, then, Scarlet Tiger reveals a skilful and gifted poet capable of some of the most moving and finely wrought poetry I’ve read this year. The opening sequence alone is well worth the price of entry and, overall, the book is an object lesson in how to make a collection cohere and chime throughout. Well done Ruth Sharman, you were right, it was never just about butterflies.