This new collection (Other Beasts) has all the hallmarks of a fine poet truly coming into her own, exploring her themes in a distinctive voice that is at once powerful and tender. The images rea striking – the sky unleashing ‘the long whip/of its mountains, its river’s black ribbons’; Hale-Bopp as a ‘fist of flung glitter’; a mountain village at night hanging ‘like a lantern/in some unnamed crevice of the hills’. Light and darkness – natural, artificial and metaphorical – recur. Many times I’d weighed you against other lovers, like handfuls of soil/equally dark and rough.’ Colour and sound speak together, as in ‘the clap of brown shoes ont he green lino’. The rhthms and structures are sometimes gut-wrenchingly perfect (the finest example is in ‘Fox at Midnight’,).
Boundaries, borders and divisions; uniqueness and unity; intimacy and distance – whether she is contemplating our relatioships with each other, with anials and the natural world, with our ancestors, or with space and time, Corbett conveys the acheing sense of being both a part of and aprt from, perhaps most tenderly in these lines from ‘Rainbow’: whne you left me, turning to the wall for sleep,’I smoothed the skin of your small tanned back.’
The themes are deeply personal, but they are also political and universal, and the entire collection is suffused with a sense of the smallness and greatness of all things. A slim volume of short poems spoken in a soft voice. They are, quite simply, shamanic.
Suzy Ceulan Hughes, The Welsh Books Council
On Sarah Corbett’s previous collection, Other Beasts (Seren, 2008):
By this, her third collection, it is clear that Sarah Corbett has gathered around her a compelling set of personal motifs; childhood, animals (horses, in particular), hills, moors and the night. It would be lazy to call her work Gothic, because it doesn’t deliberately set out to create unease, but her poems accept the blood-and-guts surrounding life (a single eyeball, a dead hare), and often find solace in the strangeness that night brings.
Corbett is adept at the well-placed, acute image; two girls caught by lightning are ‘a puzzle in each others’ arms’ in ‘Lightning’, rabbits have unnerving, ‘bead-berry eyes’ in ‘Nocturne’, and she uses juxtapositions that are often startling – and startlingly beautiful. For example, a fox tosses a sheep corpse over its back ‘like a crown of blossom’ in ‘Fox at Midnight’, and the ‘Mountain Pony’ settles ‘the bird of its fear’ on a concrete floor.
There’s a density to the diction, caused by strong consonance. Follow the recurrence of f, t and l sounds in these two other examples of beautiful, acute imagery: Hale Bopp is ‘a fist of flung glitter’ in ‘Comet’, and in ‘Rivers, Roads’, ‘…the city just left’ is ‘…frost on leaf, just that’. The packed repetition of consonants slows the line down, forcing the reader to enunciate clearly and giving the words a deliberated weight, which underscores the evident rhythmic control of the lines. Corbett shares that control with her presiding spirit, Elizabeth Bishop, whose work furnishes several of the poems with epigraphs.
This is how I’d scan the end of ‘Birthday’, the first poem in the book (the italicised syllables being those with the heaviest stress):
‘ I bark, bark. Other beasts
complain back under the weight of dark.’
I’m aware there are other scansion possibilities, especially at the start of that last line, but this is how I’d read it. Notice the slip back into iambic rhythm at the end, releasing the narrator into the night through which she runs. Notice also, the dense patterning of those hard consonants, not to mention the use of rhyme. When this occurs, the poem seems a solid, precise thing, shaped by axes and chisels. This is distinctively Corbett; her music.
I wonder what Corbett’s imagination might do outside the confines of the modern lyric poem. I’m looking forward to the appearance of the verse novel on which she’s currently working.
I don’t find the closed, charged chamber of the confessional poem in Other Beasts, nor a meander through the past’s titbits. Instead, I find a series of beautiful, unsettling, lyric moments, and several compelling sequences that look outwards to the contemporary and wider world.