Alive Alive O by Greta Stoddart (Bloodaxe, 2015)


Not having kept up to date with my blog recently, here’s a review of Greta Stoddart’s beautiful collection, ‘Alive Alive O’, recommended to me by the poet David Borrott. I hope the review tempts you to read it for yourselves (if you haven’t already, that is).

There were so many poems I enjoyed in Allive Alive O, it’s hard to know which to pick out for special mention. ‘Deep Sea Diver’ is probably my favourite. It grabbed me from the first line: ‘There’s a field inside my head’. I thought this was a fantastic opening. Although the poet has placed herself in an imagined situation, the images themselves ring true and they have the pressure of metaphor that makes them work as poetry (if I have one quibble with the collection it is that one or two poems were rather prosaic, but I’ll return to this later). In ‘Deep Sea Diver’ however, there are some beautiful images. For example, ‘a greenbottle settling down to lay/ her two hundred possibilities’, and the idea of the ‘earth’s interior/ its massive indoors’, are standout images where the ordinary is elevated to the extraordinary. It’s no surprise that this poem was shortlisted for the Forward Prize.

In many poems, honesty and truthfulness collide with flights of fancy. In ‘ICU’ for instance, I love the opening stanza with its admission that, as the nurse turns off the life support machine, the speaker wanted her to stop because, ‘Hey, I was watching that!’.  I have to say, I found stanza 7 slightly convoluted, the way the ‘bereavement lady’ looks at the family: ‘I can tell she’s sorry/ for how sorry we look, not for our sorrow’. But then I loved the later image of the ‘white bewildered bones’. It’s that use of metaphor again that really elevates the writing.

I did notice that Stoddart uses a fair amount of repetition (the lines with ‘sorry’ above are just one example). ‘Interior’ uses the repetition of words and phrases throughout to convey a changing perspective, leaving us to wonder, ‘What’s in that’s not out?’.

The sequence, ‘House and Train’, where the speaker in the first section looks in on her own house and brings her knowledge of it to the poem: ‘I’m the only one who knows …’, is a powerful exploration of the idea of house verses home and the way houses hold our identities. I loved the shape poems in section II of this sequence, especially the third stanza, or should I say, window: ‘this one needs cleaning with a/ rag that was once part of a/ shirt a man would wear while axing logs’.

There’s another excellent shape poem, ‘Wild Pear’, later in the collection. Here, the shape is resonant of two things: the pear and the tear. The end of this poem is very powerful : ‘this is what it was to be/ past caring – this single/ hard unadulterate/ tear’. This subtly transforms the pear to give the poem more resonance (this is, after all, a collection detailing moments of grief).

I liked the spacious layout of ‘Turning Earth’, with the superb line: ‘And then there is the night/ which is its own season’. My one criticism of the collection is that I did find some poems a little too prosaic in places. ‘Lifeguard’ is a poem I’d already read, in Poetry Review I think, and I felt I wanted more ‘poetry’ in it. For example, even the use of the adverb ‘practically’ couldn’t save the image of ‘men with their tongues hanging out’ from being a cliché. However, all in all I found the collection accessible and coherent. It didn’t take me long to read (and reread) but I found the images stayed with me and poems that seemed quite simple on first reading yielded new things when I revisited them, which is always a good sign.


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