Bones in the Octagon by Carolyn McCurdie, Mākaro Press, 2015 (part of The Hoopla Series 2015, see below for other two titles)
Launch notes – Emma Neale
I’ve spoken in public before about first coming across Carolyn’s fantasy novel for children, The Unquiet, in manuscript form at Longacre Press. I felt then a sense of breathless disbelief that something so sharp and lucidly poetic, was just sitting there, looking like any other mild-mannered typescript in the unsolicited submissions pile. It should have been thrust into the air gleaming like the sword from the stone in myth. Hyperbole, you might think, but the novel went on to be named in the Storylines Trust list of ‘Notable Books of 2007’, and I still stand by my description of it as a novel that seems Frameian in its use of gentle abstraction, natural imagery, and its empathy for the child’s eye view. Carolyn’s use of imagery there lay potent clues for what she also does in her poetry.
Mākaro Press have done a gorgeous job of producing this first collection of her poems —her first poems, but her third book. (There is also an ebook of short stories called Albatross, published by Rosa Mira books.) I love the feel of the whole Hoopla series as tactile objects — the fact you can slip them into your bag or capacious coat pocket like a Swiss army knife — bristling with tools for the mind — and the fact that it comes with two free bookmarks — (i.e. the side flaps) — or wings, symbolically ready for launch.
When I first started reading Bones in the Octagon, very early on I wanted to pluck out the phrase ‘shy iridescence’ to characterise Carolyn’s poems. But increasingly that came to seem lazy, insipid, because while the poems might have a kind of chromatic shimmer of mood and topic, the dart and race of illumination, the voice is anything but reticent. It is often, I think, steely. There is an inner resilience here; a voice that holds its strong, pure note even when face to face with everything from physical drought to domestic violence, psychological abuse, suppression, bereavement, political corruption, dislocation, and deep dread. Resurgent, the voice always lifts. And throughout, even when confronting darkness, it somehow still hums with wonder.
Carolyn’s poems can reach back to the first footprints and hungers of human civilisation, feeling out for connection to our earliest selves; they can hone in on the present, with condemnations of political expediency and brutality; they can have the dreamlike urgency of premonition; the shiver of fable lodged deep as inherited instincts, bred in the bone. Some, like ‘Making up the spare beds for the Brothers Grimm’, contain a sense of threat and corrupted relationships that go right down to the roots of a primal terror — there are traces here of abuse, damage, disillusion. Yet the touch is so light and the poetic control impeccable.
Often the voice in the book seems to speak in the firm but whispered imperatives of a mentor, parent, even a spirit guide. (Here is just a small sample: don’t cross, cross now, go through, walk with me, pack no bags, don’t look back, stand by her, watch out, shush, look there, please leave, come in, measure, wait…and again wait…. and wait.) There’s the sense of a markswoman with her arrow pulled back, tense, taut, not even quivering — then thwish — the poem is released.
Carolyn’s range is wide: she draws on world myth, local human and zoological history, the urban present, the transcendent imagination of childhood, a feeling of secular prayer and benediction. ‘Verbal Thai Chi’ is another way to describe the atmosphere of her work. She catches the heady lift of music ‘the intoxication of song’ as she calls it; she has a long view, of gradations of deep time — yet she is also vividly alert to the smallest shift in interaction between people right now, in the living minute. (I’ll just say here, watch out for the eyebrows.)
Her language, in its crisp repetitions, might imitate a bird in flight; her use of line break and white space can capture the way a ‘silence is vibrant’ […] ‘As when you enter a room/and conversation stops’ ; the careful accretion of information builds like a web of narrative, every strand or line holding the whole design in place. There can be gentle, plangent word play which shows the way the subconscious can both pun and express loss, can show the past so indelibly written on the mind’s memory maps.
Throughout the book, there is an awareness of the atavistic, of someone listening in closely to the primitive within us, but with something like a physician’s training and carefulness. It made me think of the title of a Les Murray collection, Translations from the Natural World, but where Murray’s work sprawls and layers, Carolyn seems to have a porous sensitivity that she still manages to whittle down to a fine wire of narrative; to forge the line till it strikes a clear, ringing note.
I could say so much more about Carolyn’s work, but I want to close by saying that as in her poem ‘Hut’, her work has corners that shelter tenderness, and offer us refuge. To use her own lines to sum up the strongest qualities in her work, and to make a ‘virtual’ toast to Carolyn here: “Fire, music, you. Another sip.”