Prole Laureate award and the YorkMix/York Literature Festival Poetry Competition, Wendy Pratt is a poet whose star is in the ascendant. In her pamphlet Lapstrake, the music of the sea provides a backdrop to poems exploring both personal tragedies and the shared memories of past inhabitants of the Yorkshire coast on which the poems are set. Lapstrake itself refers to a method of boat building practised by the Viking fisherfolk who once attempted to tame these wild tides.
The poems alternate between the contemporary and the mythic. 21st century resort towns, with their “cuddly toys / and waffles, the get-rich-quick sound / of money falling through the slots”, contrast with Viking settlements which once stood on the same ground, their “sun-keeper wheat, washed / in warm shadows. Barrows / topped with dense spelt.” I was reminded of George Mackay Brown in the way that Pratt’s narrator often inhabits multiple temporal spaces at once. The descriptive writing, too, was sometimes reminiscent of Mackay Brown’s, with a sparseness of language and a clarity of imagery ideally suited to the vast spaces of sea and sky which these poems inhabit.
Pratt’s sea is personified in the Norse gods Rán and Ǽgir. In Rán and her Net, the goddess who snares drowned and drowning sailors sings a tender love song to her victims:
“And I will search for coins in their clothes,
I’ll take payment in gold for safe keeping
and feel for their souls and kiss their skin...
...and I cradle their heads
and I tether the net, and I let them go
and keep them close and let them go
and keep them close.”
This sea which can swallow men, ships, even whole buildings, is yet capable of unexpected gentleness:
“Just now, with the sand faltering on the edge
of land, the sea a smoothing hand
that pats you down, your words are muffled...
...We have teetered on the edge,
but turn, now, away...”
The “tiny, dried-out effigy” of the mother in Mermaid yearns for the sea as escape from the depression brought on by her claustrophobic, land-locked life:
“...And she swam
back and away over the harbour wall
back to her swimming dream-time, back
to weightlessness like a water-birth.”
It is in the central poem of the pamphlet – the eight-part sequence And Her Great Gift of Sleep – that we feel the pull of the sea most strongly. The poem is a heartbreaking tribute to a baby girl lost in infancy. From the first signs that all is not well, the sea presses inexorably in on a narrator who is powerless to hold it back:
“...The sea is sick,
with a sound like breaking glass,
it beats itself to sleep in the bay.”
“She is drowning.
My little sprat, my gill-less fish, slippery-slim
and flexible, my squid, my jewel
in her mermaid’s purse with her tiny feet...
...has stopped nudging me,
“I dream the sea
and the tide line
is scattered with her clothes.”
Years ebb away, leaving the narrator “salted and wizened; a dead starfish or a shell.” The sense of grief throughout the poem is palpable; it murmurs and hisses like a tide which “moves on and on and offers / only sea glass and fossils.” Yet, at the end, there is a sense of acceptance, of letting her child go into the endless sea of time:
“I think of her atoms climbing
out of her body, out through the earth
into the water, into the rain,
into the sea. She is moving freely,
now, and I cannot stay static,
rocking her memory.”
In the sounds and motions of the sea and the tugging of the moon on the tides, Pratt has found a music and a wellspring of imagery that perfectly expresses a sorrow that would otherwise be beyond describing.
The other striking feature of this pamphlet is the intimacy of the poet’s voice. In Places I No Longer Believe In, Pratt reminisces gently but with beguiling honesty about the scenes of past misadventures; she has “inhabited these shells; / like a hermit-crab, discarded them, / left in a hurry, walked away.” Instead of losing herself in nostalgia, the poet reminds herself that she can look forward to “a life you can believe in, / a house with foundations you can touch.”
Weaknesses in these poems are few. I felt that perhaps the formal poems (this poet has a particular fondness for pantoums) lacked the verbal clarity of the free verse pieces. I occasionally detected what may be signs of insufficient editing, with some unnecessary repetitions (“the dulled sound of inside / sounds”) and half a dozen deeply obscure phrases (“a satisfying sanguine indifference”, “the sun... poached disparately”, “the wind... a seagull’s bitter creel”, “the murmur of voices, falling like gulls from our conscience”, “a spouse-found / family”) which muddied the otherwise crystal clear waters of Pratt’s imagery. But these are minor niggles, and never detracted from the musicality of the poems or their authenticity of emotion.
The concluding poem in this pamphlet is also the most surprising. Dead Whale Dreams of God is that rare poetic beast, a sestina which actually succeeds as poetry, not just as a writing exercise. The poem intersperses extracts from an autopsy report on a dead cetacean with philosophical reflections from the whale itself on its final journey. “The light, the dapples, the spotted deep... [the] great eye opening”, which seemingly herald the gateway to heaven, actually represent the sea breaking onto land at Holbeck Bay (and the beached whale’s inevitable death), providing a quietly unsettling end to the collection. This poem confirms Pratt as an ambitious poet, unafraid to take risks with her writing, and capable of tackling the cosmic with the same poignancy of image and musicality of voice with which she addresses the deeply personal. I suspect there may be great things to come from this talented and mesmerising writer.