Review of Anne Stevenson's Astonishment

Monday 16 February 2015

astonishment As part of our project to make available reviews of poets taking part at StAnza 2015, we are obliged to DURA – the Dundee University Review of the Arts – for allowing us to re-post this review from their website. Written by staff and students, DURA supports independent cinema & publishing. DURA promotes diversity and supports local and regional arts. See more reviews of poetry and prose on their website at


Anne Stevenson
(Bloodaxe Books, 2012); pbk, £8.95

Anne Stevenson’s sixteenth collection, Astonishment, examines the everyday in an extraordinary way. Love, nature, childhood and old age are put through her alembic of lyrical compression and technical inventiveness.

The opening poem, “The Loom”, marks the beginning of life itself: “ And once my lungs were gills”. The image of the loom shapes both the structure and the content of the poem as it traces the genesis of the “liquid shadow”. The loom is both the instrument of creation that can “weave through a trembling warp” and also of destruction, “a weft that kills.” This threat that looms throughout the poem is transformed finally where the speaker is welcomed “with human voices”.

Water also features in “Teaching My Sons to Swim in Walden Pond”. Locating the poem at the site of Thoreau’s experiment in self reliance, the speaker exhorts her sons to abandon their “slogans, logos . . . ear pods and mobile phones” and return to the water,

scaled and finned,
for a cool trip home.

The language delights, whether the immediacy of her encouragement, “That’s it! That’s it!”, the startling metaphors,

to steal through water like grease
on a ribbon of silence

or the return to the contemplative mood,

no creature swims
that doesn’t need to swim, except us
who swim for fun, for play.

Nature animates this poem. The physicality in the profusion of nouns, “hickory”, “pitch pine”, “mallards”, muskrats” and “skater-bugs”, coupled with the yearning to “behave like a fallen leaf”, “to burrow underwater”, place Stevenson with Thoreau and his Transcendentalist enterprise. So too does her desire to examine the relationship between language and nature. Just as Thoreau “willed America’s wilderness to poetry”, Stevenson poses the question,

But isn’t everything we see in nature
known by how we name it?

Finally, her imperative to “listen to the ripples, whispering to the stones” underscores her recognition of the city as a rapacious creature advancing on the wilderness.

In section II, Sonnets and Variations, Stevenson plays with form and subject. Her poem, “Not a Hook, not a Shelf, maybe a Song?” examines love—its thrills, frailties and disappointments. She uses the three quatrains to define the nature of love. Her humour is sharp:

After the thrills of Ecstasy or booze.
The rites of hymen meet the wrongs of women.

This is love in the contemporary mode. When the “hook” of passion pales, she tries it on a “shelf” alongside “the telly, Tesco’s, kids, a four-wheel-drive”. Finally, a “song” proves a suitable home for “everyone knows it, beats it, hums it, Luv”.

The poems in section III are rooted in North Wales. They are “nature” poems: celebratory: “sweeping the air with haze and chaffinches” (“Then, like a present”), arresting: “spring, with its killer instinct, / keeps a strangle-hold on the year” (“North Easter”) and philosophical:

Another spring
–even an age of intelligence—-
may still be possible. (“Roses in December”)

The final section summons memory, mutability and the transformative nature of art: “Let a river be invented by a stroke of light / that anneals it as it vanishes from sight” (“Photographing Change”). In the poem “Tulips”, Stevenson remembers her friend Nerys Johnson, whose painting covers the collection. The tulips link old friends and lovers and although the flowers “have lost the battle. / Cut down, shipped alive into exile”, they are reinvented through the painting:

At the core of each flower,
a black star,
a hope-pod, a love seed
the seminal colour of night.

Astonishment encompasses awe and bewilderment. Stevenson discovers both, in the process of aging, in her poem “It’s astonishing” : “that these arthritic fingers once belonged to my bow hand”, that her “wild left foot” is now supported by a “Lycra sock”. This collection is, as Stevenson asserts, her “left foot poetry” – long may it continue.

Jane Baston

Anne Stevenson is reading at StAnza on Thursday 5 March at 5pm