Review: ‘The Occupant’

‘Come out from behind that half-closed / door’, writes Jane Draycott in her spacious new collection, ‘so I can see you clearly / amid the fire, the blizzard in this room’ (‘Open Gardens Scheme’). Best read as an open letter (or even a standing invitation), The Occupant leaps between moments of clarity and illumination, from the dream-time of the Exeter Book to the scene of a girl – the poet’s mother – kneeling by a bookcase, enthralled by the world it holds. With the knack of an old friend, her poems call us out of hiding: not to dwell on ourselves, but to share the light a common ‘room’ provides.

Draycott’s five-part title sequence takes off from another long masterpiece – Awater – by the Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff. While Nijhoff’s protagonist follows the elusive character Awater through the streets after a day at work, always one step behind, Draycott’s narrator reimagines the same observer with new urgency: ‘And so because I cannot sleep I leave / the hothouse of my sheets / and walk…’ If we place ourselves in these itinerant shoes everything seems brighter, clearer, ‘feverish / with noise’; in contrast to the city which ‘sits / at anchor’, we find kinship with the ‘stirring / in the air’, or the ‘restless grasses, restless, moving, fine’.

Cover photograph courtesy of the Oxford Writers’ House.

In a way, ‘The Occupant’ unlocks the entire collection’s work. It places a finger on the driving energy which takes us beyond ourselves and into the world, a force seemingly more important than what we will encounter there. Even the reason behind the roving remains cloaked in mystery: movement itself (buoyed up with metre) is the primary principle. As Draycott’s poems plunge into other times (‘The Hill Above Harlech’), other worlds (‘The Stare’) or other lives (‘Namesake’), they take on a relentless quality that says more about the search than the self – ‘I do not know who it is that is travelling on this train’. Sometimes this momentum is a wonder in itself. At other times it bears us away from deep loss, through the ‘cold watch’ of the ‘fever room’. Although the long journey of a vigil never leaves the bedside it takes all the stamina of a marathon: ‘I have been driving east for days’, she writes, ‘I have been driving east for ever’ (‘Who Keeps Observance?’).

But there is another current in the book, one which takes us back into ourselves, urging us to ‘give up the wilderness, the wandering’, to ‘let the world go’ (‘Lent’). It is inside, she suggests, that we find what’s truly new or regenerative, something sufficient to ward off the ‘blitz’ of all that happens: ‘a flame / being dreamt by a child in the night’ (‘The Winter House’), or even a ‘second human heart / that’s dreaming of a house that could be built’ (‘The Little House’). When Awater’s incomprehensible circuit of ‘ministers, scientists, / generals [rolling] down the palace drive’, cars and barking dogs gets too overwhelming, ‘it helps to imagine some music inside you’ (‘Silent Movie’).

This is especially so, Draycott suggests, when the world has wrought its worst. An especially tender example is ‘This Storm’, which begins in a neighbourhood holding its breath before the rain:

… The street’s deserted,

cleared for the marathon of the wind,
the dry twigs setting off hotfoot,

the river of dead leaves lively as anything
racing for the woods and home.

In truth, however, we’re not out on an empty street but in the swept, ‘stirred-up’ chamber of the mind, which in its hard edges, and its light and dark, mirrors the world outside: ‘what by day seemed / muddied, hidden […] by night / seemed clearer, like a running stream’. When Draycott delivers the poem’s understated final lines we realize that the storm’s devastation has been under the surface all along:  ‘Hearing of your death today has got me / thinking about how much I liked you’, the line-break  rupturing the centre of the world.

Just before the collection’s end, we encounter one of its finest gems (‘O God Who Made’), which brings together the book’s twin impulses of restlessness and introspection. ‘Almighty god who made the land / and sea but did not make these canals,’ it begins, with seemingly unstoppable force, ‘look down from your attic at this latticework / of water…’ We are, as the poem hints, in Amsterdam at its darkest, and ‘Isaac / and his young Rebecca’ (Anne Frank, perhaps?) are in hiding as ‘fingers of the water […] search the darkening map’. Against our doubt and questions (Where was god? Is he to blame?), the poem somehow summons a more complete trust; not in any greater sovereign, but in the possibility of someone – anyone – to ‘hold the candle / closer to this patch of night’.

Not a hope of divine providence or rescue, only of a very human comfort: the warmth of being ‘observed from any watching planet’. In these poems Draycott holds a candle to our occupations and our preoccupations, our journeys and our silences, and gives us something of that warmth ourselves.

Theophilus Kwek is Features Editor at The Oxford Culture Review, and Co-Editor of Oxford Poetry.

‘The Occupant’ is published by Carcanet, RRP £9.99.

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