Fair Ground by Penny Sharman – Reviewed

Reviewed ByJames Fountain

James Fountain reviews Fair Ground by Penny Sharman. James has pamphlets published - Glaciation (Poetry International, 2010) and The Last Stop (original plus, 2018, Runner-Up at Ilkley Literature Festival Pamphlet Competition 2018). Has had individual poems published in The Journal, The Recusant and Dream Catcher as well as The Blue Nib. Now based in Leeds as a teacher and freelance journalist.

The well-titled Fair Ground by Penny Sharman, is an exploration of childhood realised through an array of poetic forms, opens with the cascading free-verse of ‘Prayer bundle’, the reader immediately arrested by an Emily Dickinson-like mediation on existence: ‘after life/spirit-child exists in dreamtime/within the dark egg/millions of stars’. As befitting the collection’s title, there is an immediately childlike, lyrical fascination to the lines, combined with a maturity of expression. Alliteration rams home the imagery: ‘dividing divination-dreaming in every dot/spec of a life’.

‘Making a winter coat’ also has a cosmic focus: ‘the seeing of dark sky, Orion’s belt, the Bear,/stars to pluck, to pull down knowledge’. But the final line of this stanza is somewhat disturbing: ‘to weave them as jewels into fur and skin’. This sense of ownership, of an imagined, glitzy domination of the universe, is in stark contrast to the earlier lines of the poem where the speaker is a child ‘bringing these things to you [her mother]’.

An infantile perspective carries on into ‘Wolvercote’, a crisp, miniature prose-poem where the speaker reminisces: ‘I just loved all that weight of me gone to the river mud and weeds’, the naturalistic image an extended metaphor for the simplicity of childhood. The poem ends with a wistful irony: ‘how summers were long and hot; how the world was so very small’.

However, there are moments in this collection when Sharman visibly exerts too much effort: ‘White-face capuchin’ is an over-elaborate ballad of a monkey kept inside a violin case. ‘Halcyon day’ is a conversation interspersed with lines in italics indicating a second voice, as is the current poetic trend, but a woefully over-used one. This is a mother and daughter poem with lines such as ‘you frightened me with your largeness’. And ‘mummy told me I was beautiful’. The phrasing here disappoints in comparison with earlier parts of the collection, feeling a little spent. There is a feminist insistence which does not sit well with the best poems here.

‘Virago’ is a neatly crafted return to natural observation, focussing on two foxes: ‘how long the vixen crouches/in a simple state/watching each moment pass’. But this is not the utopia it once was, ‘all the mystery now washed/by earthly day noise//a mechanical aria.’ This is deft and powerful writing, the imagery unique, the poetry freed from the poet’s earlier technical fixations.

Yet the collection’s unevenness continues with more poems which do not match the beauty of ‘Virago’. ‘Machars Peninsula’ – set in the Machars, the plains of Galloway in south-west Scotland, is clotted with phrases which jar from having been overworked. The speaker, standing among the landscape: ‘finds her ghosts on gnarled driftwood;/a piece of flat wood, her raft of memory,/layers of timbered fights with Neptune’. This reference to the Roman god of the sea seems somehow unnecessary and contrived, at odds with the lovely simplicity of the initial verse in this collection.

A sonnet which immediately follows, entitled ‘The firmament’, is a perfect specimen of what this poet can achieve when she strips away the shackles of pretence. It opens with a stark beauty of description: ‘Here’s a little house, squeezed between others/made of stone, wood, fire, earth, black and white.’  A sense of childlike bewilderment is expertly conveyed as she travels through a spellbinding landscape: ‘Here are hills blue indigo round and black/in this night’s canopy that moves us along.’ This is counterpoised with the poem’s end, the child-speaker having arrived at her destination: ‘A chorus of cypress, a double bed of sighs,/A synthetic duvet; how I love crisp cotton sheets,/the photographs, our voices.’ Although some of the punctuation here feels highly wrought, and it is not clear why the poem needs to be written in sonnet form, contained within this complex frame is a simplicity of imagery which cannot fail to imprint itself on a reader’s mind. These powerful portrayals of childhood memory negate any need to over-elaborate. 

A mixture of experimentation and simplicity brings us to the final poem in the collection, ‘Cutting rice’ – a triple-stanza poem, each of three lines. The collection ends in obscurity, and further cements the argument that Sharman is at her most powerful when she suppresses the urge to over-experiment. ‘Let me hear your earthquakes, leopard-spotted appetites,/for belonging. Bury them in my palm. Let me bring blossoms,/the white-white of petals into the earthly hours.’ If poet’s intention was to confuse her reader with these final lines, she has certainly succeeded.

James Fountain