long looping strands (Penelope Shuttle's Adventures With My Horse(1988))

by Michael Peverett

Favourite lines? Well yes, those are easy to find.


snouts succulent,
these sisters lie outspread, five cordial orchids
against mother's blushing pungent bulk,

("Killiow Pigs")

Michelangelo's clouds:

As old as these nesting clouds
that water-lily the void together,

("God Dividing Light from Darkness")

Something the thief steals:

... the joy that bends you easily and makes you feel safe,


He dreams the fragmental stealth of my spirit.
He dreams my future, he dreams my past.
He dreams the breath of this bare room,
the chimney's old ache of blackened brick,
the ceiling a caul of faded paint,
the walls objecting to windows on principle,
doors opening and closing on an ardent future,
causing horror, fear, delight,
and all these dreams move in me like sex,
with little or no punishment or revenge.

("Draco, the Dreaming Snake")

Kneading clay:

He lifts the clay in both hands
and thuds it down on the wooden benchtop,
... then pressing the weight of his spread hands
down on it; the air must be forced out.
He grabs the clay up, throws it down,
beats it with his fists again. He punches
and pummels it, groaning and urging himself on;
it must be done;
this is not the gentle time.

With a wire he splices the clay in two, like cheese;
examines it for air bubbles.
Walloping the two halves together with a clap of laughter,
he wedges the clay, pushing the softest clay out
in convexing folds ....



No more books, I told myself, conscious that I'd already exceeded the forty cubic inches allotted for books in the van. But then I noticed Penelope Shuttle's Adventures with my Horse in a Frome charity shop (it was in the farming section) and I couldn’t resist revisiting it after thirty years.

This was her fourth poetry collection, published in 1988. (Her latest, Lyonesse, came out in June 2021; I'm eager to read it.)

I've probably mentioned before that Frome has a tenuous Penelope Shuttle connection. It was here, at the George Hotel, that she arranged to meet up with an intrigued Peter Redgrove (in about 1969, I think). They'd briefly crossed paths a year before, at an arts meeting near St Ives. But this was the real beginning of the marriage that would transform their work.

Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle: How we met (Independent, 15 August 1992)


But the poem that especially struck me this time was one I neglected first time around. I find I can't omit any of the lines. 

Lovers in a Picture

On a bed like an intimate stage
the lovers embrace between red curtains
caught on five gold rings;
the soles of her feet
and the tips of her toes
are scarlet as some phoenix
her red fingertips have held;
across her face turned from him
is the faintest veil;
otherwise she is like him
naked to the waist,
then swirled in big clinging pants
of crimson silk;
his face as smooth and passionate
a profile as she
on their red-curtained Indian couch,
like sonneteers on a rose-patterned mattress;
the two pearls hung in his pierced ear
quiver and her long looping strands
of pearls that fall from neck to waist
and meet behind her back in a shining halter
shiver with a similar suspense;
familiar to us, his leaning towards her,
his concentration and hope;
familiar to us, her mouth,
her small round kind breast;
familiar to us, her knees he kneels between,
familiar to us, his heart-beat, her breath;
they wait in stillness
for us to see how their watchful ease
between the curtains,
their preliminaries and his hand
beneath her elbow
mirror the only way of solving
the redness of those curtains,
the treasure of pearls,
of feeling the air lifted up
on its golden rings
and rocking us;

familiar to us, these lovers
at their work of guidance and love;

and night's kohl drawn across our own eyelids.

At the end of this gently unspooling sentence the curtains are drawn across. 

In the animized world of this poetry, the pictured lovers are as alive as the lovers who are viewing the picture. Sex always has an audience, because everything around us is alive (and not to mention the lovers themselves); this bepearled pair of lovers have dressed for the occasion. But nakedness is the essence. The argument of the poem is its movement from "similar" to "familiar"; what is more similar than his smooth and passionate skin to hers? Your knee, my knee; your kneeling, my kneeling. So that, by the end, it's the viewers who are involved in the curtains, in the concentration of "solving" and feeling the air lifted up. In their own act of sex, or in sympathetic identification, or in artistic contemplation, or in artistic creation, of a poem for instance? In this poem all the activities form a continuum that we might simply call being alive. 

Penelope Shuttle has said that the form of her poems is driven by breath, and that's especially apparent here, where the flow of the poem's breathing is contained into an expectation, into hope, into "watchful ease".

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