John Bartlett reviews Fiona Perry’s ‘Alchemy’

‘Alchemy’ Fiona Perry
Turas Press
ISBN 978-1-913598-12-9

 

 

Once I read the lines in the first poem from the debut collection ‘Alchemy’ by Fiona Perry I was hooked.

 

‘The Jesus Woman sat in a café
and selected her twelve disciples.’

 

Here was a poet already upending my expectations, raising the possibility of alternative interpretation of traditional themes and as I read on I was not disappointed. The fate of women and children is just one preoccupation in this collection and this opening poem, ‘The Jesus Woman’, is a paean to all the women who have suffered injustices, even merely ‘for being charged for being a woman’ and is a powerful poem to start this collection.

 

The position of women in society looms large here, but these women are not victims. They are women to be reckoned with. For example, the stepmothers in fairy tales, featured here, although traditionally ‘wicked’ come across as heroes – ‘dangerously sexy’ and

 

‘like a hammerhead shark, never
in history going down without a fight.’

 

As the title of this collection ‘Alchemy’ indicates, here are poems of transformation. Often Perry takes us into semi-mystical worlds, even if they are always painfully rooted in reality.  In ‘Róisín Raharuhi’ the terrible loss of a child, condemned to Limbo by the priest, finds consolation ‘gliding fast as a bird’s /shadow over trees’ and is absorbed and welcomed home, redeemed by the spirits of Nature and the ancestors, thus erasing the rigidity of the religious institution.

 

There is nostalgia for childhood along with concern for children permeating these poems. The poet recalls how

 

‘We ran
like tiny dragons. Fire screaming throats.
Buttercup flash, puff bumblebee, shook bird’s
foot trefoil. Force-field meadow warmth
electrifying. Grass kissing shins. Cursor heart
Rising skyward from chest’

 

But this is not mere sentimentalism for its own sake but wide-eyed realism squarely facing up to the way children are treated today.

 

‘They’ve thrown us half-alive on our mothers’
corpses in open graves.’

 

and

‘washed up, small and dead, on beaches,
dismembered by bombs, skewered by shrapnel,
raped and taught to kill.’

 

This cavalier treatment of children receives special attention in the poem ‘St Rumbold’s Well’ which looks compassionately at the startling claims that up to 800 babies may have been interred in an unmarked mass grave in the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam in Ireland which operated up until 1961. The story is told from the point of view of one of the lost babies with the final lines promising:

 

‘Hold on, because a tsunami of
mothers’ tears is forming and it will right all wrongs’

 

As well as concern for vulnerable children the poems in this collection link us to the concerns of the natural world and its creatures. As a five-year-old, the poet has sympathy for the zoo panther.

 

‘It’s true. They have
squeezed your mightiness
into a box. But
ghosts of night forests
cannot be contained.’

 

And later the poet enters the world of bats

 

‘self-coloured as night
shaped like birds but
not birds’

 

and concludes by personifying the bats

 

‘you are sorcerer I am your apprentice’

 

A snake too becomes more than just a snake

 

‘moving like an embodied soundwave into the tree
shadows.’

 

In this collection we dwell in a magical world open to the possibility of many transformations. Perry summarises our connection to the natural world as a truly spiritual relationship, reminiscent of the first book of Genesis where the spirit of God moves over the waters in the very act of creation.

 

‘In the chamber of every heart it’s known
we are surface shadows passing over
the prismatic water of this world,’

This undercurrent of semi-religious connection to the earth is a dominant feature of Perry’s poems. In another poem she sees herself as reborn inside the breakers of surf, an act which not only reveres Nature but enters into it by a sort of communion with distinct religious overtones.

 

‘Prepare
 for my second coming,
as foaming diamonds
released from saltwater
ectoplasm thrown on
to warm, restorative s
and. Equipped for terra
firma dwelling’

 

Later in the act of giving birth the afterbirth itself is more than mere physical matter. It becomes ‘this feral wisdom in the bloodied wake of birth.’

 

So, there’s magic everywhere. When the poet (or somebody else?) sings into the dome of a huge building, the notes are so powerful that ‘suspended fossils in the masonry creak and burst into life.’ The potential for transfiguration lurks even in buildings not normally considered alive.

 

Ordinary objects too have the potential for deeper meanings. For example, the poem ‘Timepiece’, ostensibly about a grandfather clock, seems to be more about the deeper relationship between the poet and her father. It’s this way of interpreting found objects as imbued with deeper meanings that fills the whole world with potential poetry.

 

In the later poems, ‘Psychopomp’ and ‘Bird Tarot’, perhaps it is this same father, once the keeper of pigeons, who is now transformed into a bird in the journey from this world to the next.

‘The clatter of kaleidoscoped beak and wing against the pane revealed that on your way between this world and next, you tried to come back to us.’ Even in death there is transformation.

 

In ‘Memory Box’, some very ordinary found objects (crochet needle, wage slip, a photo, a CD) become imbued with deep memories of love, loss and miracles. In this poet’s world ordinary objects are indeed sacralised and made holy.

 

All good poetry strives to distil ideas with an economy of words and in a poem also entitled ‘Distillation’, Perry summarises and contains succinctly all the emotions of illness and loss in just three or four simple images – candles, jasmine, and tealeaves ‘water-wakened’. There are no lengthy descriptions of what has preceded just hints and suggestions, always more powerful than detailed descriptions.

 

Perry herself has lived in Northern Ireland, England, Australia and New Zealand and although there are local references in some poems, a feeling of universality prevails. Many of the poems could have occurred anywhere.  Or even within any heart. This universality of feeling is what binds them to us the readers.

 

The ideas, preoccupations and emotions here combine with stunning images, which raise the ordinary and everyday to the mystical. Who knew a swimming pool could be so poetic,

 

‘Smashed raindrops
 submerged
and were reborn
 as rings within rings
of meniscus
carvings on her
surface’

 

‘Alchemy’ is a well-named collection, carrying the idea of a transmission of base metals into gold, the idea of a semi-magical process of creation connecting the reader into unexpected and alternate worlds. In the words of Fiona Perry herself: ‘I know I am doing what is needed: I am stopping to listen to the world, seeing all this startling abundance that never sleeps.’

 

This is a collection to be savoured and reread, giving us hope that base worlds can indeed be transformed into something beautiful and mystical.