review by Frank BeckMallika Voraby Penelope Shuttle

Will You Walk a Little Faster?

review by Frank BeckMallika Voraby Penelope Shuttle
Will You Walk a Little Faster?

Will You Walk a Little Faster? by Penelope Shuttle. Hexam, Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books. 2017. 112 pp. £9.95/$22.00 (paperback)/$9.49 (e-book)


Right from the start, Penelope Shuttle lets us know she’s on thin ice. The only consolation is that she may be in a place where, by admitting all she does not know, she can at last make a fresh beginning:

         My Life, I can’t fool you,
         you know me too well,
         I’m sad of myself,
         days lived in vain,
         you test me
         but bin the answers . . .
         I know you so well,
         My Life, not at all (9)

A poet at odds with life is hardly news, of course. In his poem, “The Lesson for Today,” Robert Frost said he had “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” Yet, in the course of these 66 poems—her fourteenth collection—Shuttle expresses a sense of alienation that seems to go beyond a mere “quarrel.” She describes a world in which we cannot be entirely sure that we have fully experienced or accurately remembered anything, except perhaps our hunger for meaning and communication. The only other certainty is that our days are numbered:

         I can’t bide my time forever
         so I glance at my life
         as it goes by
         lived and unlived
         dipped in time
         where I’m the day’s watcher (54)

It’s easy to overlook how effortlessly Shuttle establishes her distinctive voice, which she has learned to balance on a razor’s edge, so that single syllables like “strange” and “skimped” and “dipped” can resonate. Sometimes she uses assonance, as she does here, or rhyme, to link ideas, but her acoustic effects never draw attention to themselves. Yet the sound of the lines is of prime importance to her. Her main organizing unit, she has said, could not be simpler: “For me it is the way the poem breathes that gives it form.”

And somehow the fact that the ground seems to be shifting under her doesn’t prevent Shuttle’s being brisk and breezy, if the mood strikes her. In the title poem, the speaker takes us darting through the streets of Oxford:

         I’m not
         as you see
         an official guided walking tour

         Like Fair Rosamund
         I quickstep down Rose Place

         like swift Alice
         I skip across St Aldate’s

         the brainbox city
         huffing and puffing in my ear

         I’m not hurrying off
         to visit a dozen harpsichords

         or the church
         where William Morris was married

Like swift Alice, indeed; the poem takes its title from “The Lobster Quadrille” by Oxonian Lewis Carroll. But the speaker isn’t headed to the Oxford destinations most often associated with “the brainbox city” (Shuttle’s choice of words is one of her chief delights) but to “The Physic Garden”—Britain’s oldest botanical garden—where potent herbal remedies grow. The poem’s concluding lines affirm the healing power of “the help-yourself of nature/who wears a green coat/not a white/don’t you agree?”

Born in Staines, Middlesex, on the western fringe of Greater London, in 1947, Shuttle is one of the most prolific and widely discussed British poets of her generation. She started writing early, publishing a novella when she was only 20. Her first poetic models were the British-born U.S. writer Denise Levertov and foreign poets that she read in translation: Rilke, Akhmatova and Lorca. If Shuttle had any English forebears, they were Traherne and Blake, not Wordsworth and Larkin.

At 23 she married Peter Redgrove, a former classmate of Ted Hughes at Cambridge who, at 39, had established himself as a major voice in British poetry. The couple settled on the coast of Cornwall—the westernmost county in England—where they spent 33 years living and working together, both producing poetry that began with a keen awareness of the natural world and later incorporated ideas from Jungian psychology.

After Redgrove’s death in 2003, Shuttle wrote a series of poems about their relationship that appeared in her 2006 collection, Redgrove’s Wife, and the book was shortlisted for two of the nation’s most prestigious poetry awards: the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, novelist Gerard Woodward described  her as “one of our most compellingly sensuous poets . . . Shuttle is a poet of immense reach, both in the range of her subject matter and the breadth of her language. She is both an acute observer and an inventive fiction-maker.”(Like many British poets, she has recorded a good number of her poems for the country’s online Poetry Archive, making them available to a global audience.)

In this new book, Shuttle is just as likely to take us through the streets of London, Oxford, and Bristol as to the Cornish coast. Perhaps solitude is less desirable as one gets older. Nonetheless, whether set among city crowds or not, Shuttle’s latest work is intent on unraveling the real from the illusory in all kinds of circumstances: wondering why the heart is still “no open book” after all these years (22); watching the spirits of hospital patients struggle to free themselves from life, as surgeons try to keep them here (40); and warning herself about the dangers of sinking too far into the past on a visit to her childhood town (41).

Her style has been pared down a bit—her lines tend to be shorter these days—but her poems are as playful and emotionally direct as ever, despite the existential doubts that many of them raise. And, as the collection progresses, there are moments when Shuttle’s  confidence in the power of incantation returns, as though it had never been called into question. “O Blinde Augen” (the reference to “blind eyes” comes from Wagner’s Tristan and Iseult) is addressed to Peter:

         My voice
         my voice alone
         will touch you
         from crown to heel . . .

         My voice will tend you
         like a child raised by wolves

         All this is true
         and now
         I will tell you one of my lies
         as I used to
         and you always understood (66)

But those moments of assurance coexist with others, many of them during sleepless nights, when “the world’s a long way off/a radio too faint to hear” (54) and the line between wakefulness and dreaming is fluid. Then untethered quiet can suddenly open onto other realities:

But sometimes
on a night like this
there’s so much silence in the silence
my childhood flings its arms around me
or runs me along a hallway
hung with swords and sabres
or I’m carrying the past somewhere
in a jeweled goblet filled to the Wagnerian brim
with blood-red wine
I mustn’t spill one drop
nor take one sip
till I’ve carried the goblet to safety
wherever that may be
and my dad dear dad can’t save me now
from all this waking and sleeping             can he? (78)

With this book, Shuttle has carried that goblet—full of the past’s recurring confusions and tentative redemptions—into the light, bringing us the kind of poems that only a long life, deeply lived and bravely imagined, can yield.