Before I write about Rebecca (Becky) Gethin’s debut collection, River Is The Plural Of Rain (Oversteps Books, £8), I ought to admit that I know nothing – no, really, nothing – about the natural world, whereas Becky, who lives in the middle of Dartmoor, has a keen eye and a keen feeling for it, and knows the landscape like the back of her eye (trying to pull off a complicated metaphor there, and maybe not succeeding). I also ought to stress that the collection is not merely a country almanac, but also contains several poems about her Italian forebears, and, most movingly of all, poems about a sister she had who died young, and whom she can hardly, if at all, recall.
And anyway, I love the book for its sure-handed language, the way she raids her considerable mental dictionary for exact and exacting images. There are bats ‘fletched on my retina [which] quiver the air’; she writes of the ‘rapids’ hurleygush’; the way, at an estuary, there are ‘wriggling creatures/ which the sea has left in its sheen’; about midges which are ‘dancing electrons’. There is a terrific poem about a man called Foale, whose name only survives in maps which describe his ‘Arrishes’ (enclosed fields), and which finishes with a fantastic description of permanence growing out of impermanence:
When another man thought to rebuild/ the inn, repair the walls and till the arrishes again// the land thought different, sucked him/ into its maw, digested him/ into sundew, frogbit, butterwort.
A poem about a blizzard watches swans ‘stream across pewter water/ thickened with curds of snow’. This is nature so tangible you could probably chew it: and better still, it’s nature rendered in a clear, colloquial and accessible tone. If you want to find out how to write poetry in a clear, conversational and contemporary way, start here. Nothing jars about the rhythms. All the surprises are in the images and the ideas behind them, which is how it should be.
But the most startling and tender poems are about her lost sister, Emily: poems which might make you cry without trying. She is a ‘ghost sister’ for whom the writer searches
along the water’s edge/ before I found she’d left behind/ some history I forgot we’d never had.
Best of all the poems in this collection – which includes others meditating on figures like the Italian resistance fighter Rosselli, and re-creations of figures from the Dartmoor graveyards and churches – is the pantoum ‘How to forget’, in which the repetitive form captures the obsessive problem of the lost sister, a poem which subtly alters the phrasing of each line, beautifully subverting the form:
Don’t knock on the door and invite yourself in.
The rooms all seem empty except a shadow
lies in wait for you upstairs,
even when the house is full of people.
The rooms all seem empty except that shadow
hides in the silences between the sentences.
Even when the house was full of people
someone breathed beside me.
Hiding in the silence between sentences
I brushed the skin of her absence …
This is a poem which ought to find its way into anthologies, and into prizes. It was even better to hear it read at the launch, in Ashburton. This is a terrific collection.