The M Pages, by Colette Bryce, Picador, 80 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 9781529037500
Montale’s comment that poetry is less predictable than prose comes to mind reading Colette Bryce. Since her remarkable debut, The Heel of Bernadette, she has shown both variation and range in her work, developing a distinctive poetic personality that places her outside of and beyond the “Northern thing”. There have of course been key poems generated by memory of the Northern conflict, particularly in the Derry city of her childhood and in its “war-torn community”: poems of retrospection that vividly capture something of the interior of that life under pressure in ways that are both sombre and witty, and always innovative and inventive with the possibilities of language as she has shown in such poems as the documentary-style “Derry”, as well as “Break, 1981”, “The Search” and others.
There is a taut energy in her work that surfaces again in this new collection. To embark on the theme of mortality is a challenge to any writer; as a subject it has been trampled to death by generations of poets. But Bryce reconstitutes the theme in the deeply moving title sequence. However, it might be more accurate to suggest that death’s fallout for the living – the grief of bereavement – is the true subject here, the haunting presence in these pages.
Centred on the death of a loved one (and the unexpected discovery of that death as well as its aftermath), The M Pages is a fluent interplay of elegy and eulogy, remembrance and revelation. Above all else this superb sequence is a space of remembrance (the elegy is perhaps the highest form of love poem). There is a sense of clipped urgency in the pace of the fourteen-section sequence but this is one of the qualities that give these poems their individual and collective impact and momentum.
The voice of the poem may seem sharply matter-of-fact (“M has disappeared and that’s final”, states the arresting opening line) but this sometimes raw directness never lacks emotional conviction nor moments of delicacy. In seeking a language to accommodate grief and its moods she is unflinching in her interrogation of the lost life at the centre of the poem. The scene-by-scene narrative – including interludes of flashback – creates a cinematic effect. Here and there it also leads in unsettling directions:
M on the slab, in the undertaker’s lab
in ghastly make-up, beige foundation.
M in the procrustean bed of the coffin,
M one of them, the dead.
M in the glass display of the hearse,
a legend in daisies, S-I-S-T-E-R.
In the build-up of detail and information, the commingling of present and past moments, she allows “M” to acquire character that, for the reader, makes the poem all the more moving and poignant as well as mysterious. Bryce knows there is contradiction and contrast between the bitter facts of a death, the sting of its grief and the eloquence and beauty of the elegiac language often employed to articulate it. But here nothing is embellished, the poem is never one of implication but of clear statement, the narrator voice is at times almost Larkinesque.
Dying is an art you were not very good at.
You brought the element of surprise
at least, a bumbling unpreparedness.
There are wonderfully deft touches throughout the poem: describing the solemn moments of uncertain stillness that follow a burial, she writes: “We stall in silence / gradually disperse / images on the surface of a stream / into which a stone is cast …” or how the deceased’s watch “kept on marking time / long after time had ceased to matter.”
Comparison has been made to Denise Riley’s study of bereavement, A Part Song, but among recent poems of loss and lament (Deryn Rees-Jones’s Burying the Wren also comes to mind) it stands as a stupendous achievement.
Elsewhere in this fine collection Bryce slackens the serious tone of the title centrepiece, and reveals not only her capacity for wry humour and wit, but also the economy and discipline in her use of language that is a reminder of Marianne Moore’s line that “compression is the first grace of style”.
As if to prepare the reader for what is to come, a death is announced in the opening poem (“Death of an Actress”) but on this occasion the subject is handled with playful zest:
She has, as chimney sweepers come to dust.
And bitten it. She has given up the ghost …
Has gasped her last, pegged out, gone west.
Mislaid the future like a set of specs
The poem may be funny, the jokes a bit excessive, but we are forced to take it seriously. The lighter touch continues with “Perfect Smile” – a poem about a visit to the dentist that might touch a nerve with many readers (“The shrill malarial / whine of the drilling enters your brain / on burning threads as your grip on the armrests / tightens …”).
She allows her sense of fun free rein in the six-part “Cuba”, a piece of magic realism that Elizabeth Bishop might have written and certainly would have enjoyed:
A twenty-two foot Che at Santa Clara
we are wilting at his boot.
Is that a rifle or is he pleased to see us?
Later in the book there is in fact a full-bodied echo of Bishop in the final poem, “A Last Post”, in which Bryce expresses a wish to “live / in a wrecked Bishopean shack” on some imagined shoreline. The somewhat opaque and riddling “Drum” ends with a scintillating example of Bryce’s layered imagination when, in a depiction of a pigeon flying out of the drum, she compares the image to
….. the hairwash scene in Almodovar,
where a woman bows down over a basin
then emerges from the towel a different
actress than before – older, sadder, lined –
like an early photographer rising from the cloak
of her machine to a world devoid of colour.
It is a brilliant image and a brilliantly transformative moment in the poem. This Derry poet also evokes something of the atmosphere of a corner of Dublin in her paean to Oscar Wilde’s birthplace in Westland Row. In an interview some years ago Bryce stated that she believed that a poem “was no good if it doesn’t have emotional truth”. Emotional truth is the holding glue in Bryce’s poetry – whether she is returning to her early years in the North or reporting from the wider world of her imagination.
Gerard Smyth’s most recent collection is The Sundays of Eternity (Dedalus Press, 2020)