Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Review of 'A Somersault of Doves' by Valerie Bridge

ISBN: 9781907640124 
There are many kinds of journeys and poets love to tell of them. ‘A Somersault of Doves’ offers a moving and different slant on the theme for these are real journeys of place and time (rooted in memory and the handed-down tale) that span three generations of a family in flight as they travel across warscapes and devastation. Here we have poems that encompass danger and survival, the terror of the fugitive, displacement and loss. There is alarm at the thought of consequences ‘if the Officer unpicks/patchwork documents’, the sense of everything ‘closing now, no escaping’, the fearful ‘concentration/in the camp ‘ which ‘offers others skins’ and where someone will ‘barter for your hide, or cut it from your sleep.’ This is a brutal, painful world where even sunlight licks ‘at rifles’ and men ‘strobe the dark with torches splitting dreams’, where ‘birches ricochet this skyline’ and where those on the run must sleep on a hard floor under ‘a cover/where lice ride bare-back’.
The sequence of poems in this collection follows an interesting structure. Three sections are titled ‘Riga to Vienna 1890- 1920’, ‘London to Vienna 1947-1950’, and ‘Liverpool to Riga1940 -2000’. These describe journeys which begin with the author’s Latvian grandmother, Olga, running away to seek her true parents, continue with the impoverished post-war refugee world of her daughter Yadviga and end in 2000 with the author, Valerie, still ‘treading water’ with her fragments of memories and folk lore from the past. As prologue and epilogue to these tales we have two passages ‘something like amber’ which tell of the sacrificial drowning of a woman, a millennia and a half before, whose bones have been ‘long in the peat’. I love these sections where the corpse’s ‘eye sockets stir as if she’s on the point of speech’ and where, at the end, she is all women, all mothers, and although nothing can change history there are still the ‘no ending stories’.
In her introductory notes Valerie Bridge suggests that her poems should be seen as glimpses  – silhouettes in the distance, tracks in snow, ‘a frieze of figures: ciphers in a snowstorm, like scratch marks on the bark of a frosted silver birch’.  Certainly, in the first part of the collection, this is the mood that predominates. We find ourselves involved in a snowscape where ice ‘stiffens eyelashes’ and ‘crusts your throat’, where birth takes place ‘in wind chill five’ and ‘breath etches the waterfall/iced on these branches marking your face’.  Other images soon creep in, repeat, connect, and repeat again. (The skilful repetition of key words and images is one of the aspects of this collection that most appeals to me.) We have the nightmarish figure of Baba Yaga who steps out of a fairy tale into the waiting room of a hospital where she hides and ‘nods/the night in’. There is the recurrent tale of grandmother as a child out blueberrying and straying from the track, unaware of the bear hidden by autumn leaves in the cave who stops ‘mid snore’ and pursues her all the way back to the safety of the porch. There are images of refugees as ‘luggage’ – ‘wayward parcels or sandwiches’, children who become ‘someone else’s belongings.’
A recurrent theme in ‘A Somersault of Doves’ is the idea of stories changing in versions, of anecdotes handed on through generations like ‘a joining of dots on a map inherited’, of omissions and additions, of memories that strengthen in the telling although ‘there is always going to be something missing’ so that one has the impression of ‘blurring lines on fragmenting tissue’. The romantic tale of Olga’s escape from the backwoods of Latvia is an example of this where ‘differing versions of you jump from in-between carriages’. Parallel with this theme of versions is the continuum of return where the narrator feels the steps ‘on wet pavements now might be those that mounted the verandah,/seeking the place as expected, the empty chair.’  Is it ‘finally your footsteps’, she asks, ‘pausing,/returning, undoing the beginning again?’
Memories that are closer in time, childhood memories that feel real even if they are based on hearsay or impressions from a snapshot, are bound to be more vivid than recollections of older tales. This is why the section ‘Liverpool to Riga’ feels so personal and immediate. I find the poems that deal with the death of the author’s father, a man she never knew, almost too painful to read. The poems about her mother’s dying are equally hard to cope with. It is a mark of Valerie Bridge’s brilliance as a poet that she is able to write on such topics with unwavering honesty, compassion and beauty.
‘A Somersault of Doves’, deservedly, won first prize in the Slim Volume Small Edition at the Winchester Writers’ Conference 2013.  The cover has a marvellous, striking illustration by the artist David Marl and inside the book is a wealth of original material – copies of notes, postcards, envelopes, photos, documents of all kinds – a perfect counterpart to the richness of the poems. ‘Album pages’ says the narrator, ‘become moments when two men chop logs,/a chained dog barks and a dark group is waiting at the open door.’


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