What I like most about Jane Draycott’s poems (Over is her fifth collection, depending how you’re counting) is their air of mystery. It is as if she looks at the world and sees it as a selection or collection of secrets, a bag of unfathomable matter, a place into which she should shine a torch – but not too sharply. She does not reveal, really. She invites you to take a look.
She sees the imprecision of things, their possibilities. There is a recurring stream of polite uncertainties which runs through her poems: Not you. You … some other air we cannot see … trouble barely heard … nobody can understand anything … And here it is, at least/ a little bit of it … if they have ever existed … a story/ you’ll never know the ending of … as if they’d never/ seen the like before … For a moment I believe I can see … the edge of the known world …
I’ve stolen these phrases from ten of the poems in the first section of Over (in the order in which they occur), and I could have stolen more. They give a clue what Draycott’s particular instinct is – to write at the edge of an event, or to take a common enough experience (a picnic, in one case), and to conjure up strange and unexpected developments. ‘Picnic’ itself opens with a semi-comic image of a couple lying on the ground (‘as if we’d thrown ourselves down/ at the approach of enemy aircraft’), and hints immediately at the way the man, who is reciting a series of random, uninteresting facts (‘the five different voices on your car navigation system’), may well be the dullest man ever to emerge from Dullsville. The narrator’s voice quite calmly insinuates that a storm and a ‘low fuse of fire’ are, unbeknown to him, heading their way, and have been for years. He is still jabbering when it hits, but the poem is far too subtle to explode. Is this a poem about the end of a relationship? About the way images of perfection (which absorb Draycott very frequently, as do the properties of light) conceal much more unpalatable truths? About unpredictability? All of these, I would say, which is what makes poems like ‘Picnic’ so rich.
The second half of ‘Over’ is a sequence based on the twenty-six names given to letters by the NATO phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta…). The names are initially (pun intended) improvisations on some aspect or other of the word involved, but, as the sequence proceeds, you can see that it includes many recurring dreams of childhood, many almost futuristic glimpses of gone, impossible or mythic worlds, all of which reflect our own. There is also a curious obsession with ice (present in six of the poems).
Draycott is good at disguising herself. Although many of the poems are plainly drawing on and developing an autobiographical fragment, her voice is steady, cool, unyielding. This is a collection in which is there is a great deal of slightly troubled tranquility, in a series of poems which is sufficiently logical to let you in, and sufficiently strange – like fragments of a Coleridge vision – to keep you in there. And her control of voice, harmony, rhythm – these are second to none. Her poems are clear as a bell – but never as deafening. They are like carefully cut jewels, or curious and fascinating keepsakes.