Poetry - ah life!

IssueMay 2010
Comment by Jeff Cloves

This column purports to be a review of PVT West’s poetry but it requires confession. Pat was a friend and poet/performer with whom I worked from time to time for over 30 years. Take this into account.

When Pat died I wrote of her here. Two years on, a new book of her poems has, to my chagrin, made me realise I hadn’t appreciated how significant she was – and is. I knew she felt under-valued and I realise that I under-valued her too.

In her beautiful poem, “Lament”, she half-rails, half-accepts:

    I used to think eventually my worth would be discovered I believed my fame would grow from my immeasurable talent but now I see it is my faults that have been increasingly uncovered.

I believe “eventually” has come about because every poem in this selection from her life’s work confirms her talent and makes it clearly measurable.

But writing this is not a belated apology or act of friendship. I know this is a stunning body of work which speaks clearly, forthrightly, passionately and scarifyingly.

Pat was a poet above everything else: above feminism, above political activism, above pacifism – maybe even above motherhood.

She wrote about domesticity but her determination to be her true self conflicted irresolvably with the demands of her sons, her parents, and her lovers. The pain these conflicts produced was the engine of much that she wrote:

    Grim night of passion passed in rage at bland days. Heaven is flavoured by this taste of Hades. She feels dead-ended no turning off or return. No way to salvage the night-torn day She feels rough. It was not & never would be enough & ...

Poetry performances are strange events and the temptation to rely on tried and trusted work for impact is often overwhelming.

When Pat, Dennis Gould and I performed together as RiffRaff it was invariably at events which were, in the broadest sense, political, and we programmed accordingly. So, of the 69 poems in this book, 40-50 are unknown to me. The rest I heard Pat perform countless times.

These new-to-me poems wittily and candidly examine her soul but manage to avoid the poetic excess of naval-gazing while aspiring to universality.

However, one piece Pat repeatedly performed was “Kitchen Cabinet” and it always made a profound impact. It’s their equal and a daring idea daringly written.

The opening verse sets it up:

    An Iraqi woman stands before me in my kitchen & I am going to kill her. I don’t know how to do it but I’ll think of something. It is the will of the people that I do so & I am one of the people. She looks tired from the long journey and she has her son with her whose schooling has been interrupted. She looks easy to kill; weak and worn out. I am not sure what to do with the body afterwards – or with my conscience – though killing’s no crime at present because there is a war and she is my enemy.... She could have supper with us and maybe we could talk things over. Her son and mine might get on. In a year they could each be drafted.

I’ve read these poems in proof and I hope that they will be dated. In all the years I knew her, Pat lived in the same flat in the Redland area of Bristol. She died from cancer and “I Know What Heaven Is Like” was written, I guess, towards the end.

    It is like Redland Green: the sun low on the warm stone of the portal of the holy house. There’ll be a going-through & the green grass will renew & the leaves will dapple the elderly chatting underneath, comparing with what difficulty they had managed to get there or telling of the hell they have escaped to this seat under these trees.

Pat, like many poets, will be “discovered” after her death. This she deserves. She knew her worth but needed more reassurance than I, for one, was able to give her.

Topics: Culture
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