Review: The English River, a journey down the Thames in poems and photographs by Virginia Astley

A QUIET EXCHANGE IN WORD AND IMAGE: REVIEW BY MARIA ISAKOVA BENNETT

The English River, a journey down the Thames in poems and photographs by Virginia Astley, 2018, 94pp, £12.00, Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Eastburn, South Park, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 IBS

 

Virginia Astley’s first collection is a journey both of the upper reaches of the Thames, and of an intimate relationship. Although many of the poems are personal, themes of loss and of a developing awareness of the self are universal.

This is my remembered landscape,

stored in my earliest self,
and all along, I have been re-winding, re-playing,
continuing this quiet exchange.   

                                    [‘I breathe as though I’ve been submerged 

                                      and am coming up for air’]

 

Music flows through this carefully formed and honed work in the way Virginia judges pace, tone and rhythm, and with references to aural effects perceived as music. In ‘Lammas Land’, ‘the lark cadenzas.’, ‘I breathe as though I’ve been submerged and am coming up for air’, ‘…the bells can be heard / falling apart’, and in ‘Source’, the notes of a train are cited.  There are also direct references to music, for instance, ‘Chopin Opus 49’, the mention of which had me listening to the track as I read.

   Prayer, as with music, is both referenced directly, for instance in titles such as, ‘Sanctuary’, and in the content of poems, ‘there is the quiet of snow / and the quiet of church’ (‘I breathe as though I’ve been submerged and am coming up for air’). These motifs of prayer and music recur like echoes in a beautiful melody.

   The half-light of winter or early mornings is a frequent backdrop, ‘unable to sleep— the weir, the wind— / I’m walking the village before dawn,’ (‘Somewhere I’m not a blow-in’); ‘In the darkness you lie awake / hearing the front panes fret,…’, (‘Night Rain’). Virginia is sensitive to the fall and rise of light, and it’s these subdued parts of day and year that feature most in both poems and photographs.

   Intimacy is revealed through both memory and via dream references which Virginia uses skilfully, ‘I’m dreaming about you, / you’ve found me: at Michael’s / somehow trapped.’  (‘Old Songs’)

   Because of the quiet but passionate tone of the work, the more dramatic references in one of the pivotal poems placed at the centre of the collection are all the more arresting, ‘Your sister has married my ex, / the one I left for you;’, and, ‘But the last time I was in this house— / I can hardy speak— the last time, / was the day we buried you.’  (‘How did I ever think this would be OK?’), but even this poem is given space and quiet with use of em dashes and its gentle conversational tone. 

   These are quiet controlled poems inspiring a desire to visit the riverscape cited. Simplicity and an air of melancholy are complemented by photographs which enhance these qualities, photographs in which there’s no glare of sunlight, no dazzle. I highly recommendThe English River. It is best read and reread cover to cover, but each poem also stands alone, powerful in its own right, speaking directly of love and loss without succumbing to ornate or melodramatic language. I found myself breathing slowly as I read.