New Poetry, Fiction, Essay

Jane Simmons reviews Jane Draycott’s The Occupant


Jane Simmons is a retired teacher/lecturer who is now studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She has written several short stories and is currently working on her second novel and a collection of poetry. She is a member of the Lincoln-based Pimento poets and Outspoken Poets and regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. Although her main interests are poetry and prose fiction, she has written a short play which is to be published and performed in summer 2018.  Jane says she does not know how she ever found the time to go to work. Jane lives with her husband in a village outside Lincoln. They have one daughter – who is a vet, and Jane’s number one reader.


Jane Draycott: The Occupant


ISBN 9781784103002

Jane Draycott’s latest collection The Occupant (Carcanet 2016) is also a Poetry Book Society recommendation.  Her previous collection Over (Carcanet) was shortlisted for the 2009 T S Eliot Prize and her first two full collections Prince Rupert’s Drop and The Night Tree (Carcanet/OxfordPoets) were also both Poetry Book Society Recommendations. Her work has been nominated three times for the Forward Prize for Poetry. Her translation of the 14th century dream-vision Pearl (Carcanet 2011), was a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation and was also a Stephen Spender Prize-winner. Her collection of new translations Storms Under the Skin: Selected Poems (1927-1954) of Henri Michaux was published in 2017 by Two Rivers Press.

Jane Draycott is Senior Course Tutor on Oxford University’s MSt in Creative Writing and tutor in the Dept of English and Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster.  Her poem ‘Italy to Lord’ was a prize-winner in the 2012 National Poetry Competition, and in summer 2013 she was Writer in Residence in Amsterdam hosted by the Dutch Foundation for Literature. She was winner of the 2014 Hippocrates International Prize for Poetry and Medicine.

The Occupant – the five-part title sequence of her latest collection – takes as its starting point the long poem Awater by the Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff and scenes which were planned but never actually written. Nijhoff’s protagonist follows the character Awater through the streets of the city at the end of a working day. In her poem, Draycott re-imagines this narrator as a restless character:

because I cannot sleep I leave

the hothouse of my sheets

and walk

Draycott’s occupant walks the streets of an unnamed city, describing how dead lanes keep their silence and how the frail expire and pale dogs whimper in the stifling heat. A police notice reads Missing: Have you seen this wind? The city sits at anchor while the walking narrator – and through the walking narrator, the reader – identifies with the stirring in the air and the restless grasses, restless, moving, fine. This introduces an idea of movement which informs the other poems in the collection; the poems become journeys

Sometimes the movement takes the reader on a journey into the past, as in The Hill Above Harlech where an artist describes this place on the radio. In the award-winning poem Italy to Lord, the journey into the past goes back to the girlhood of the poet’s mother:

It’s dark in here and forest green: Britannica,
sixteen oak trees in a London living room,
the little girl, my mother, in the bookcase glass.
Italy, Ithaca, Izmail, Japan, each page a mainsail,
turning, HMS Discovery – none of the rivers
of southern Italy is of any great importance.

Like birds on a long-haul flight, let not seas
or deserts, cliffs or icy mountain-tops
impede you. Jews, Kabȋr, Kabul, Kaffir,
from up here all seems clear (all evil in the world’s
ascribed to Maya or illusion), then home at last
returned from all those navigable miles

to Lichen, Linnet, Logic, London, to find
a century has passed, the forest’s cleared,
the animals all bared and scorched, the gold
all brought to light. I look into the glass,
discover there myself in dense shade, deep
and shadowy as on any wooded island.

The child reads the encyclopedia and is transported by the HMS Discovery on a voyage of discovery to faraway places, different cultures, and worlds of myth and legend. The poet is taken on the same journey but also to the lost world of her mother’s childhood – and the poem becomes an elegy for both the past and for her mother. The reader is taken on all of these multiple, layered journeys.

In Namesake the movement is into yet more other lives, the multiverse and all our doppelgangers. At the beginning of the poem Who Keeps Observance, the narrator says she has been driving east for days to keep observance over a sick-bed:

I watch you sweat,
I watch you sleep. Some far and submarine light
keeps you swimming. In the blueberry bloom
lungs loosen, the pulse is in retreat,
speech is unlearned and falls in spools
of oil-shine tape along the mineshaft floor.

At the end of the poem, I have been driving east for ever presents this bedside vigil as an even longer journey, a journey which is a personal marathon of endurance.

The poems continue to take the reader on journeys to different places and through different experiences. Some of them seem real enough, describing events in characters’ lives:

The boy had asked to see the sea

so we’d driven until we saw it,

three hours’ crawl out the city, that’s

what I’d call love

These characters are not always clearly identified – here the reader is left to assume that the child in the poem is the son of the narrator and to speculate whether this is a family outing or just an outing for the two of them.

At other times, the journey takes the reader to a setting, a new place:

the morning’s wiped, the cash-machine’s

impossible to read, on-screen statements

your reflection only.

                                 In this gorgeous glare

Bones grow and muscles lengthen

A girl could climb to her full height.

while others are obviously imagined. In Loll-Head Lettuce, a gardener cuts away the flower from a still-life painting at the National Gallery and takes it home to plant the cutting in his own garden. Some of the places visited are dream-worlds which seem to function like symbols or metaphors; sometimes the boundaries between the real and the imagined are blurred:

the wonder is the waking world

is so much like the dream

All these visited places cause the reader to reflect and to see the world through new eyes, sometimes to dream, and sometimes to overcome disaster:

a flame

being dreamt by a child in the night

or a

second human heart

that’s dreaming of a house that could be built

In the face of adversity, hope is not offered in any belief in divine providence but through human comfort – and that, we are reassured, is a start.

Re-reading this review before sending it to the editor, I noticed that I had focused on ideas of dream narrative and elegy. It is perhaps appropriate to point out that these are subjects which have long interested the poet, and have led her to work in association with mental health-care professionals. However, the same interest must have played an important part in her decision to translate the fourteenth century dream-vision The Pearl. I will certainly be looking at this, and at her earlier poems.



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