A Shadow in Yucatán by Philippa Rees
Trafford Publishing 116pp £9.00
Philippa Rees is as an immediately distinctive and striking poet who writes with unfashionably – often brilliant – painterly verbal play and colour, oozing with a sensuous love of language. Rees’s almost tangible style dazzles with imagistic chiaroscuro; stark contrasts of light and shade, subtext and texture:
…The shafted pencil-light writes clearly on their
crowns; the ankles trace the shadows, but the bare
Now the sun is cracked for breakfast in the middle
of the street; spatters the sidewalk, and the back of
the newsboy’s knees…
Only sleep soiled quarters grey and dim, door
hatches plastic sealed…
the air-propeller din sucked greedily through
straw of mesh and spat across the street.
Breathtaking. This ripeness of verbiage and intrinsic musicality inevitably bring comparisons with Dylan Thomas (particularly the densely descriptive, rumble-tumble list- passages of Under Milk Wood): ‘The clock-still, washer-numb, rag-bound Sabbath sulks’, and:
Despite the rigours of perpetual war with heat,
the car seat covers, and the sweat that lies in
ambush for the moment in unplanned transit
between the ‘Charity Luncheon’ and the ‘Lonely
I can’t help hearing Richard Burton’s silvery intoning of ‘the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives’. But this is not to detract from Rees’s individuality, which, throughout this book of poetic narrative interspersed with colourful dialogue, is palpable and often beguiling. She is prone to the lingering aphorism that is imaginatively her own – ‘The cradle of compassion lies in an open palm’; ‘Nights are cloth soup silence’; ‘…alone in triptych of frescoed guilt…’ – and the unforgettable image – sometimes oblique, but still workably so:
Lethargy, that toothless crone, skims perpetual
indifference from the cream of richer care.
The old face crumples like a burning shoe, and
shakes as though to free itself of scald.
…the drifting necklace of leaves that swung
from the throat of the shade
Such striking images are abundant throughout this intensely evocative work. Rees also demonstrates a sharp eye and ear for sense impression: ‘the low moan of bark before curling’.
Rees’s poetic prose is punctuated by an irrepressible anthropomorphism; an instinctive gift at metaphorical personification. No object is permitted inanimate impunity in Rees’s naturalist, rocking wordscapes: ‘Surgeon trees consulted, sprinkling water on her face’, and:
God is the groin and armpit of a tree, …
His belly is the sweating earth,…
peachy Georgia; the smoke grey road cuts the
It was laid by the card-sharper’s hand.
Another marked Rees feature is expertly peppered alliteration and assonance: ‘benedictus, benedicat, the embedded memory!’, and:
Twenty-eighth street South, holds credit potential
Once a grove of palms, rattling perpetually…
…Only the occasional fruit, silently ripening…
…Stephanie succumbed to a
scent, lethargic even for bees, and dreamt a dream
through the grasses of over-ripe summer.
Rees’s ability to build up a setting with rapids of descriptive imagism can often startle:
The sleek glass door is guillotine to any
The receptionist surveys any likely unwashed
Stephanie is pole-axed, overpowered, drained
by air-conditioned talcum, re-circulated scent,
plushy velvet drapes, glossy blown-up prints.
The latter passage, set in a hairdresser’s, reminds me of the first stanza of Harold Monro’s ‘Bitter Sanctuary’, which isn’t however set in a hairdresser’s, but an office:
She lives in the porter’s room; the plush is nicotined.
Clients have left their photos there to perish.
She watches through green shutters those who press
To reach unconsciousness.
She licks her varnished thin magenta lips,
She picks her foretooth with a finger nail,
She pokes her head out to greet new clients, or
To leave them (to what torture) waiting at the door.
Rees’s own stanza stands on its own expressively-speaking. But it just shows how little has changed over the last century in terms of (rapidly im-)polite society, and, more reassuringly, how certain subjects and a poet’s approaches to them, have a perennial timelessness about them.
The challenge of this 109 page piece is in absorbing and appreciating both its poetry and storyline at the same time, though ultimately they are as counterbalanced as deftly as one might hope from such an ambitious venture. For my part, I read A Shadow in Yucatán mainly for its poetry, its play with language, image and sound, rather than strictly trying to follow
the actual narrative. Approaching this book with a sort of Negative Capability, I experienced
it in terms of descriptive impression, verbal effect. In this respect, A Shadow in Yucatán is disarmingly beautiful:
The pressure-lamp hisses like a wasp churning oil
Un-consoled by the hammer tap-tapping of shoes
…, blow a ring of bright face.
Causing the dancing arms to blur, and shadows to
leap and curse.
I will need to read this book again in order to absorb the underlying story beneath its rich poetic surface. But the very fact I’m intrigued enough by the language to want to read the book again speaks volumes for its dynamism. Snatches of narrative however inevitably leapt out at me throughout; in particular, The Storm sequence, which reads like an animistic rape passage from Greek mythology. In this naturalistic riptide, the wind itself metamorphoses into the perpetrator: ‘She takes it standing, welcomes its hands up her skirt’. The ambiguous victim of this animistic rape ‘lifts besotted arms in worship, grinds her heels in the mesmerised clay’, seeming almost suppliant in her bodily libation. The raping gusts once ‘Appeased’ then, quite graphically ‘…retreats smiling, licks resin from the/ split in a stone’. But its libido knows no bounds and it ‘…swiftly snaps her back. Crack./ Wraps his thighs about her, and drenches with his/ seed’. This violent conception then results in the comparably visceral birth scene, its vicissitude of forceps:
(The rope was a five ply nerve, clamped with
strong white teeth. The intrepid monkey-muscle
would follow it, through gasping and sweat….
All this prepared in stillness, in the screed of the
Rees also shows herself to be a deft mimic too in some of the expertly presented pockets of a landlady’s Yiddish-inflected patter:
Oi veh! A bikini I might have managed, so for why do I
start a cape?
Midsummer now, it also seems, and who knows if she
likes the shape?
Here the poet demonstrates as well the playwright’s ear for the colourful salience of everyday speech, though equally one informed by a deeply poetic sensibility. Some might interpret aspects of Rees’s verbal mimicry as verging on caricature or burlesque, but to argue that would also be to level the same at most takes on the gesticulatory Jewish argot in legion film representations (more often than not penned empirically, re Woody Allen, Mel Brooks et al). Whatever one’s critical take on these aspects to Rees’s book, it’s hard to deny their colourful camaraderie:
A letter it is, at long last…too short for any news…Mein
Gott she says she would rather walk!…but ah, in a taxi
she comes…This afternoon? Is it the ninth? And the
florist too far down-town…
I will not attempt to delve into the polemical undertones of this work, nor to focus on the political tone of some of the poet’s take on certain themes or subjects, though I detect on occasions some aspects of Rees’s world-view are probably as unfashionable as her richly
verbal style (the latter of which I know she will understand as a compliment).
Rees hails from a post-colonial background, white South African in nationality, and no doubt this brings with it some polarised insights that could be taken as uncomfortable truths. But whatever politics might lie beneath the surface of her work, I challenge any reader not
to be impressed and seduced by her beguiling verbalism.
It is difficult to guess how Rees’s ‘Thomasian’ style will be received in the current poetry mainstream, but I suspect that its British exponents, being intrinsically distrustful of writing which is obviously beautiful and powerful, will do their utmost to find fault in it – forgetting
as they often do that to strip poetry of all imperfections and verbal flare is to dilute it into less expressive, prosy precision. They will in my view however have to go to great pains to
find any flaws so significant as to detract from the obvious poetic gifts of Philippa Rees,
abundant throughout the unfashionably brilliant A Shadow in Yucatán. (Alan Morrison. The Recusant Ezine)