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Only half belonging in the world of light

“Scarlet Tiger” by Ruth Sharman, published by Templar Poetry.Scarlet Tiger

Ruth Sharman’s use of language is so natural that on first reading I missed many of its  subtleties. “Morphine”, a sestina, has the same six end-words repeated in a set order across thirty-six lines but with the seeming ease and randomness of a cabbage-white’s zigzag fluttering, and without a hint of artifice. “Leaving” has a pattern of rhymes and half-rhymes so unobtrusive that they simply enrich the music of the poem without waving any flags to draw attention to themselves.

The Scarlet Tiger, a colourful day-flying moth to be found locally in Southern counties of Britain, makes an appearance twice in this, the poet’s second full collection. Ruth and her father shared a love of nature, and bonded during long country walks observing and naming things. The first poem “By Heart” goes straight to the point – because we’re running out of time/ for you to talk and me to listen/ I want to get things straight. But this isn’t about family secrets; it’s about stockpiling knowledge, as if knowing cancelled absence/ and a father could be hoarded/ piecemeal with the facts. Ruth’s father was touched by her many poems about butterflies, but suspected rightly that it was never just about the butterflies. These poems are about holding on to moments of joy, holding on to a precious relationship during her father’s life and slow decline, holding on to him after his death through the things they both held dear. The first of this book’s three sections is centred on the father: his moths and butterflies, his rather obsessive nature, his illness and death. The love felt for him is achingly evident but never cloying.

We meet the Scarlet Tiger first in “Creedy Ward”, where the dying father looks like Rameses/ three thousand years/ into the afterlife, but the moths are so abundant they’ve been coming up/ through the floorboards, or, as caterpillars, motionless … all the light gone out of them … you told us they weren’t dead/ simply on the point of pupating.

The second section focuses on an uneasy marriage, a wife silent, withdrawn and sleepwalking in “Metamorphosis”, driven to violence in “Veneer”, and in “Vanishing Act” shrinking … curled in the back room/ while he crowds the master … as remote from his rages/ as a shadow on the moon. There is a young son as serene as the Buddha and as easy to miss/ as the moon in daylight who is an expert now/ in making second homes – shelters constructed from cushions and blankets, a broken tent and oars, or branches and moss, who has a stammer, and whose idea of a perfect day is one when Dad stayed/ for tea and no-one argued. There is a house-fire which leaves our disembowelled wedding sofa/ the twisted christening silver/ and the skeleton/ of the standard lamp – and elsewhere: nothing safe from it/ not even the wedding dress/ I starved into, zippered/ in its black body-bag. There is solace found in the natural world, that bush, for instance/ a barberry with flowers so orange/ they’re ready to ignite and in the sheltering darkness that goes on stretching and stretching, towards/ its source. And there are more moths: soft presences lodged at the edges/ of our lives … a reminder of otherness/ and elsewhere, of only half/ belonging in the world of light.

 “The Wellow Tumulus” enters deep into a Neolithic chambered burial-mound that sounds like a more secure hiding-place than the back-bedroom – a place to curl up/ like a woodlouse/ listening to moisture seeping/ into the cells of the earth/ and watch the meadow-grasses dipping/ against the light.

 The third section takes us back to the Scarlet Tiger, the title poem starting boldly We’d have killed it/ if we’d had the courage/ to crush a body/ this bloated, or stamp on wings/ like shrivelled walnuts – this, though, is not a creature damaged beyond healing, but one in a process of change; the description of the freshly-emerged imago is an object-lesson in observation:

                 … rearranging
itself, pumping fluids
from one body-part to another.

In “Pyramidal Orchid”, where father and daughter are glimpsed in memory, we are treated to an equally precise yet poetic description of the flower and its purpose, bringing together his focus and hers: how each ridge and groove/ guides the proboscis/ of a butterfly or moth unerringly/ to the flower’s heart.

 This third section is a cabinet of curiosities. There’s a handful of ekphrastic poems that are more effective than many of that genre, and “Love that Pink”, a few snapshots of the poet’s mother, game for anything. In “Samsara” we meet the son again; in this photo he is so still/he could be a golden Buddha … so far away I’m gazing at him/ across the roof of the world.

“Waiting for the Perseid Meteors” takes the reader in a dizzying swoop from deep space to the undergrowth of a suburban garden, from cosmic fireworks to cats and crickets and the mundane business of hunting and mating.

The collection closes with “Wishing Tree” – ten miles of twigs and branches/ a hundred thousand leaves, and a chalk path that winds over the brow/ of the hill like a ribbon/ of water, a ribbon of light. I followed that path out of the book and, wishing for more, went straight back to the beginning.


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