Review: ‘The Country Gambler’

Erica McAlpine’s The Country Gambler is not only a mature, well-honed debut, but one of the best – or, most effortlessly beautiful – ripostes to proponents of free verse. Here is a poet who writes not in form but with form, a true structural engineer, for whom form is less a constraint than a conversation with the generations of writers, past and present, who peer over one’s shoulder. In that conversation McAlpine, a scholar of lyric poetry and Fellow at Keble College Oxford, proves more than capable of holding her own, and a winsome and accomplished voice in her own right.

Tracing McAlpine’s own career as an academic, young mother, and immigrant, a significant number of these poems document the fraught deliberations of moving to a new city, and making a new home. ‘Stanza’, a sonnet to McAlpine’s unborn child, is really a portrait of a mother worn down by waiting – ‘I’ll have to put away these dresses, too / … / and say they are for friends and not for you’ – while ‘Corinth’ records the pain of loving a new place, then leaving: ‘the place has wounded only one of us, / leaving a live horse and a hurt horse tethered’. In ‘September’, a rare break from the poet’s favoured Sapphic form, each careful action of ‘waiting / for autumn’ is broken down to beauty: 

I’ll go softly into
the house carrying
fire wood and strip
the beds of their
summer linens.

I am aware
I have a

skin
that petals.

Throughout the book, these reflective pieces are interspersed by loose translations of Horace that deal no less directly with McAlpine’s experiences. ‘I grow olives and endives / and tender mallow’, she writes in one of them, ‘Give to me only what I am ready for’. Another sounds a tremulous note (‘Let’s dispel the cold – you pile / the wood high in the fireplace / … / we’ll stay indoors leaving / all to chance’) before administering some of Horace’s timeless advice (‘About tomorrow, never ask. / Each day’s a gain’). Far from the brick and sandstone of her adopted city, McAlpine’s formal architecture is full of wood and windows; original poems and translations alike moderate her weighty questions of life (and death) with sparse, nimble lines and a sense of the home’s inner light. 

But it is out of doors that McAlpine’s verse is most persuasive – and breath-taking. In light of nature’s ephemerality, personal losses become even more tenderly felt: one poem compares marriage to a weaver’s fragile nest, while in another, the family mourns a sandhill crane ‘holding on to what we call migration, / that what is beautiful and gone has merely flown’. Especially beautiful is ‘The Impatiens’, which, taking a cue from the flowers’ change and constancy,  presents three stanzas (in Sapphic metre, no less) that use the same words each time to devastating effect. The poem begins: ‘The impatiens shakes its ruffled colour at / the wind. Let the maples measure grace’, only to return on a more subdued coda: ‘Gone the maples, the / wind … You colour, / and grace shakes through me’.

223_5976While many formal poets find their station in either a light or contemplative idiom, McAlpine revels in the capacity of form to convey both honey and medicine. If her more thoughtful poems remain balanced and buoyant, her funny ones are observant, beguiling, and very human. In ‘Marine Display’, we step into the skin – or shell – of a land hermit crab, which, ‘with all that body / tucked up’ inside, clutches its way overland. Because ‘needing grip is something we all understand’, McAlpine writes, we who ‘carry … quite a heavy / load’ can’t help but ‘love him so much’. Even poems that begin as serious meditations wind up with a wry turn – ‘The Meteorite’, which weighs the prospect of death by shooting-star, ends: ‘I could think of harder ways by far / than to be chosen by a star, or comet-stone’.

Correspondingly, however, a small chink in the collection is McAlpine’s tendency to tuck some poems into neat, moral endings. Granted, many of these lessons are Horace’s, not hers – ‘fold up your sails if they are swelling just now / under too fortunate a breeze’, he admonishes, or, ‘from one man Fortune steals the crown; / on another she delights to place it’. All the same, one wishes that she had made more of the English language (and modern poetry’s) inbuilt ambiguity to tease out what Horace could not have said, or a sense of history’s double-vision. What McAlpine has given us in the scholar’s care and erudition tips over, on these occasions, into scholarly fastidiousness.

Towards the end of the volume, ‘An End’ revisits the many departures – geographical and metaphorical – that have characterized the volume thus far. McAlpine ponders what it means ‘to fall out, to leave, as leaves falling out of trees’: a turn of phrase that turns itself into a poem. Its five couplets, packed with hidden rhymes, hone in on book’s undercurrents of expectancy and inevitability, asking, ‘Where is where a year ago / we lay arm in arm and heard the far-off mutter of a stream?’ There is a special resonance here for those of us who have, like McAlpine, known such distances. She leaves us with the question that lies at the book’s heart – ‘Where is where we loved to count the days?’ Where, indeed?

Theophilus Kwek

‘The Country Gambler’ is published by Shearsman Books, and is available to buy RRP £9.95.

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