Review

Breakers' Yard, Lyn Moir.

£7.00 UK post free. (ISBN 978-0-9540913-9-2) Arrowhead Press, 70 Clifton Road, Darlington, Co. Durham, DL1 5DX

This is Lyn Moir’s second collection, which builds on some of the themes of her first — Me and Galileo — with greater confidence and technical skill. What strikes the reader at once is how thoroughly at home she is in her use of iambic pentameter, which she wears as a gardener wears a comfortable old coat—working away, and pulling something particular out of its roomy pockets to dig, tie up, allow a flower space to open and unfold.

The mainstay — to borrow the apt image her publishers have used — of Breakers’ Yard is the sequence of poems about her travels in Eastern Europe between 1984 and 2000. Poems fashioned from travel can suffer from a voyeuristic slant, but not these. Lyn Moir writes about what she sees and remembers as though from the inside, from the standpoint of someone who has not only thought about and understood the complex and unhappy history of these countries, but who also has suffered in imagination with them. These poems convince us with their alert intelligence and keen observations, especially of the enormous changes — not always for the better — that have followed in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet bloc.

In ‘The Glass Xylophonist’, the frail Prague musician — once ‘the toast/of countless concert halls’, and who has ‘rifled shattered windows for the slabs/ of textured glass’—becomes a symbol of endurance and truth, ‘a masterclass/ in ingenuity, survival’, a man whose ‘makeshift mallets/struck precisely so the notes rang true.’ The poet and her lover see him as ‘summer’s harbinger’, but when he disappears, there is more than a hint of the Mob moving in, as we know it has:

                  …buskers, dressed to kill
in peasant costume, took his place, smarming
fake gypsy music at the passers-by.

In ‘Zeppelin Market’, the mafia are only too present (Riga, 1995), watching the wholesome, gorgeously described market with its ‘smoked eels/sword-stiff, straw-matted eggs, sheer cliffs of bread’ (notice the subtle hint of violence in that ‘sword-stiff’). Lyn Moir’s sharp eye sees them where they sit, ‘bloated zeppelins, drinking their coffee,/seeing and being seen.’ The force of that ‘bloated zeppelins’ is prepared by the first half of the poem, set in 1920, when the zeppelins offer ‘the new dimension of the air’ as a luxury for the rich.

Lyn Moir’s sense of time and its way of looping and re-running like film is very acute. Other times, especially the pre-war period and the Second World War, keep breaking into her poems, haunting them with flashbacks and informing the present. Titles, too, play tricks, suggesting layers of past literature or film that are part of western culture’s collective subconscious: ‘Zeppelin Market’ hints at ‘Goblin Market’, ‘Coast of Bohemia’ has us revisiting ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and, of course that very Russian bear, while ‘Et in Illyria Ego’ is anything but Arcadian and ‘Disneytime’ more like a child’s nightmare. ‘Last Train to Marienbad’ borrows something of the atmosphere of ‘Last Year in Marienbad’, and in the night-time railway station whose ‘silent clock moves backwards’, Lyn Moir has found the quintessential image of menace as Europe slides into war:

                                    ...When its hands
clap midnight, raindrops glisten, passengers appear
and stand on slickened platforms, waiting for
moonlight expresses and the wagons-lits
which cross, recross the frontiers of the night.

Time, in the poem, gathers speed, like a train that’s out of control, and the poem ends with images of deportation. A poem like ‘Auschwitz-Birkenau, December 27th, 1992’, treats a visit to the former concentration camp with great sensitivity and that necessary distance. There is an echo of the frozen landscape of Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ in the opening lines, whose deliberately casual tone brings the horror of the camp even closer:

Now that you mention it, I cannot say for certain
no birds sing. The air was cold, too cold for song,
for breath.

Time once again is skilfully blurred, taking the reader inside the room, in lines like

Frost flowers spread, thin-bladed, over window-glass,
filling their frames with unaccustomed privacy.

These poems (and I could find other felicities in poems like ‘The Puppet-Master’s Return’, with its echoes of that classic of early cinema, ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’) are sharply-etched, memorable and strong. The Eastern European locations give place, over halfway through the book, in the poem, ‘Border Crossing’, to inner landscapes of memory, to ‘the territories of your heart and mine’. Lyn Moir could well be described as a metaphysical poet, and the love poems she has written about the Galileo figure of her previous collection, with their imagery borrowed from astro-physics, are as sensuous as the metaphysical poets were four hundred years ago. Here she is, registering shock at the size of her old lover’s ears, but with what tenderness underneath the sharp observation does she convey how remote he is now:

Very little appears to have changed:
                                       ...but your ears -
huge gaping saucers, holy water stoups,
satellite dishes trained on distant galaxies.



Anna Crowe - St. Andrews In Focus


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Last modified: April 3rd 2005