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Steve Spence

“like fragile clay” by Sarah Cave, pub. Guillemot Press. 60pp. £9.00

Sarah Cave is a relatively new name to me and I first heard her read her work at the Tears in the Fence Poetry Festival a couple of years back where she entranced the whole room. I’m at a slight disadvantage reviewing this collection as I can’t profess to have been a great follower of the Moomins, (either via the Swedish books or the tv adaptation) who live in Moomin valley after the flood. Sarah Cave’s book is based around these creatures, a mix of fandom, lightly touched on theological concerns and a mix of lyrical adeptness plus an awareness of modernist techniques which blends into a thoroughly good read. I’m reminded slightly here of J. R. Carpenter’s recent publication, An Ocean of Static, where mythology and ‘children’s literature’ is adapted alongside a raft of vocabularies and disciplines to produce an overall text which is both an entertainment and a serious proposition. I’m also bringing to mind Christina Rossetti’s poetry, particularly Goblin Market, with its mix of ‘grown-up’ and ‘childlike’ (innocence and experience?) which underlines my instinct that this is a very accomplished book by a young writer who manages to combine sophistication and learning with a sense of wonder, emotional perception and sheer exuberance. There are several very bold illustrations in colour and b & w by C F Sherratt which aid the book’s presentation and the pink cover with very small black type and a hint of line drawing is imaginative and somewhat brave.

From ‘I have Nothing…’  we have the following:

          After walking the streets preaching the end of days
          Moomin returns to the dark comfort of the underpass
          to warm himself by the coal embers.

          Moomin’s sandwich board reads ‘the end is nigh’ and ‘ye shall be
          cleansed.’ He shudders in the cold and pulls his bin liner coat,
          shredded like crow’s feather’s, closer.

          This solitude is welcome after the day’s harshness;
          the neon signs over Broadway, the traffic metres, strip lights
          and cats’ eyes, the cold blank register of the office workers

          unconcerned at the passing of the world into night
          or the cleansing of their bodies back to earth, they drop
          their coffee cups in a sea of Moomin’s troubles.


There’s an almost elegiac quality to this writing, where the protagonist, having left the valley (a somewhat Edenic location) is thrust into the harsh reality of the world and its misfortunes, a ‘seventeenth century’ street preacher, talking love and in praise of nature, yet alienated in an unfriendly environment which provides a commentary on the here and now in a manner which is eerily moving. If there’s a perceived dichotomy here between ‘country’ and ‘city’ then it’s one which is paralleled in the current ‘Brexit’ crisis though the complexities of that are far more wide-reaching than simple oppositions might suggest: ‘Before he left the valley, Mrs Fillyjonks stopped him by the lilac bushes / looked into his bloodshot eyes and called him wilderness.’ 

There’s a playful awareness of existing literatures exhibited throughout these poems, whether commenting on Oscar Wilde and William Morris in ‘Moomin’s Dream’, which also touches on ‘deconstruction’, or in the later quotations from Job (4.19) and the concluding snippet from Psalm36: ‘How precious is your unfailing love….’. The relation with visual art is also foregrounded via the colourful illustrations in the book itself, and the poem entitled ‘Moomin Visits the Rauschenberg Exhibition at the Tate Modern’ which situate these texts firmly in the modernist mode, despite the theological undercurrents by way of the biblical references and the quotation from C.S. Lewis. These are skilfully produced modern lyrics which combine a variety of formal shapes and adaptations with an underlying philosophical thrust which also mixes charm with compassion and a real sense of pathos, quite an achievement in such a short collection. ‘Moominvalley Annunciation (a tryptich)’, the penultimate poem here, embraces the natural world via the world of artifice in a parade of styles which fuses the lyric with the descriptive in what could almost be a secular hymn:


          In the lowest point of the valley,
          salt-wind against her face,
          stars above,
          the maiden watches
          and can barely speak.

          She is promised
          this moment everlasting,

          on the beach alone at night,

          and has promised
          her praise in return.

          The valley quivered,
          delight ruffling its arbours.


There’s a narrative of expectation and of new life emerging which combines the ‘spiritual’ with the down-to-earth and which includes both innocence and experience within its borders. This is an interesting debut from an accomplished young writer and I’m curious to see  where her work will go from here.



Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018