DURA Review of Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman

Thursday 21 January 2016

Once again we shall be making available on this Blog reviews of poets taking
part at StAnza 2016. 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


Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman

by Ellen Phethean (Red Squirrel Press, 2014); pbk, £7.99: review by Beth McDonough

An arresting title offers a strong launching place for any book but the
reader who tries to find the source of this particularly wonderful one
will have to wait. The titular poem, unusually, is the very last in
this, Ellen Phethean’s most recent, collection. By the time the reader
finds it however, she will have gleaned a significant picture from the
narrative of these adroitly sequenced poems. I say “she” deliberately.
Her Muse is certainly male, and I suspect women will be Phethean’s most
empathetic and intrigued readers here. The patient are rewarded.

Wise women know: give her time,
she’ll gift her ruby harvest.
Praise the quince.

Initially at least, this is a book to be read as it is plotted. In
the wake of a double bereavement – that of the poet’s husband and of
Julia Darling, her co-founder and collaborator at Diamond Twig Press –
Phethean’s poetry leads far more subtly and dangerously than early
impressions may suggest.

Get up. Get up and walk into the day.

Truthfully, at the outset both the cover and the typesetting irked
me. Even to my aging eyes the jacket information seemed set an almost
insultingly large point size. This move by Red Squirrel surprised me, as
poet Gerry Cambridge’s typography is something I greatly respect. At
first I felt just a little too cooried, sensing myself being walked
through familiar themes by the collection’s initial poems. I wanted to
be taken out of what seemed a just too comfortable zone.
Somehow “leaves turned brown” didn’t push me far enough, and in
combination with the type, I confess to feeling coddled. I should have
trusted the conspiratorial wisdom of both these generous poets sooner.
Soon “everything you think you know/ distorts into question marks [.]”
and “memory itches like a phantom limb/ you cannot scratch.” As the
collection progressed, the ease of the good simile firmed more often
into tougher metaphors. That way with metaphor is finely honed in
pairings of people and plants, insects or animals. The four-part poem
“The Arid Collection” is particularly nuanced, and at its heart, two
sonnets each with an early volta.

“Are you sitting comfortably?” she asks in “Listen with
Mother”. Well, arguably, you wouldn’t be for long. Something far more
subversive is going on here. By now “this beast is gaunt/from want, like
holding hurt too long”. The reader will also hear an accomplished sound
artist and in evidence throughout. Rhyming “textuality” with
“sexuality” successfully does take a certain chutzpah. The taut list
poem “Not a Tallboy” sits opposite the aptly harrowing and wonderful
“Miscarriage, Half Term”. By now, there is no cosiness, not even in the

                     […] to crawl
the carpet’s swirling path,
through forests made of legs.

So often, however, the great wonder of these poems is how the poet
unexpectedly uncorks them, also true of this collection in its entirety
where a genie escapes. Mistress of the last line, or the final killer
couplet, Phethean shoots the unwary reader, carrying them onto the next
poem perhaps, but certainly somewhere they hadn’t planned to go.

His words were an A&E call
from the ambulance ride of his life.

There are indeed big life and death issues here, but many of these
poems also brim with sly humour, with witty observation. Consider the
marvellous picture of the gathering of patients in the hospital grounds
“feet eaten by fluffy dogs”, and again after all that fun, the delicious
finish –

Imagine if one kept on wheeling
up the road, going home.

Imagine indeed. Take that journey. Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman?

It waits in the basket, insouciant,
round of limb and buttock,
furry as a doe’s back.

That November fruit has both bite and perfume, and is, after all best eaten slightly bletted. What’s not to like about that?

Beth McDonough

Ellen Phethean will be at StAnza on Friday 4th March