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The Shadow Owner’s Companion, by Eleanor Hooker (poetry)

The Shadow Owner's Companion, by Eleanor Hooker (poetry)

Rescues are a theme running through Hooker’s poetry. In ‘Old Harry’, boating know-how and midwifery come together with dramatic force, “At the command to brace, I locked the warp and brace-brace-braced … Wave lifting me clear and slamming me back on the deck.” The poem’s narrator is forced to “hold the line, our umbilicus to life.” All the drama and danger of a rescue at sea is powerfully evoked here.

But there is also the frustration, impotence, the sheer fragility of the rescuers and their boat. The struggle to communicate to the survivors through the crashing waves, storms, “fear is urging them to jump as we urge them to stay put, hold on. Echo. Echo. Echo.” The rescuers boat is perched atop a high wave, one rescuer “feathering the throttle”. It’s all he can do.

This time the orphans of the storm are rescued, hauled aboard and wrapped in warmth, but in ‘Recovery’ the poem hits an ominous note from the beginning, “He’s overdue, that’s all we know.” The sky is ‘low with blame’ as the crew can find only a body “to gather up, tender to the last rites.”

Silence seems to thread through Hooker’s poetry, and not only as a dramatic device, Hooker seems to find so many possible nuances in quiet. In ‘Rain’, her poem’s narrator closes her mouth firmly and hummingbirds flow backward into her throat. In ‘Doppelgänger’, there’s the struggle to find the words in a slurred voice, in ‘Fishing’ the pike warns, “This will stop you talking” and in ‘Wasps in a Tin Cup’ the poet writes, “I can hear their silence from here.” Just once a tongue is stolen and eaten.

Childhood is another strong thread running through Hooker’s work but the poet sets the imaginary landscapes of childhood always just off-kilter, we slide and lose our footing, “all your childhood selves … Ice-skidding/Down and around unspoken grief.”

I am fascinated by Hooker’s poem ‘Present’, in which a small girl steps through a wall ‘out of time’, upon which the ominous clock who doles out time, “turned to watch us” and the poem’s ‘I’ draws the child in close, placing her, in effect, under now’s protection.

This also reminded me of the moment in the poem ‘Calamity’, when twin crocodiles threaten the townsfolk with oblivion, but only the child knows and no-one is listening to the child. In a fantastical twist, it’s the crocodiles themselves who learn to listen, and who “have yielded to my chains.” This is the writer, taking back the control over fear.

Ominous presences and a sense of danger or menace make their way through Hooker’s poetry, often taking on a magical form, with a knowing nod toward Grimm’s fairy tales and nearly always underpinned by this sense of profound loss, of the ground heaving under our feet. Just to give you a flavour: In ‘Afternoon Tea’, the poem’s narrator is turned, piece by piece, into an object, until finally her soul is framed, tacked to the wall. In ‘The Island’, “trees walk toward the edge”, and in ‘Cell Phone’, “Stove-hat ghouls stick dolls with pins”.

The magical ingredient isn’t always menacing, sometimes it gets closer to miracle. In ‘Birthday Greetings’, the poem’s narrator has her ear pressed to the train track, feeling for the train’s approach, when it begins to rain frogs. The train lines turn green, pulse with life, the death on the tracks is averted.

The dead often have things to say, in Hooker’s poetry. Things slide out from the water, rise up from the dead or pass through walls to the past. In ‘Doppelganger’, the ghost comes “out of the lake and in the air”, in ‘Mirrored’ its song is “The sound of a heavy body/Dragging itself …” Death comes close, too close, but in Hooker’s capable hands the dead will not be silenced. In ‘Alethiometer’, “though he’s dead, we still talk” and in ‘Singing ice’, the ‘percussions’, the cracks in the ice, “Petrify the living and the dead sing on”.

For me, as a reader, it sometimes feels as though Hooker has found all the nuance, terror, all the magical thinking, in the bargaining phase of grief. In ‘Lazarus’, we “stow our dread”, or “silence it with chatter,” because … underneath it all, “The whole of existence is in the water, moving with the rapids. No one is panicking, except me.”

For me this is poetry about profound grief which manages to also be life-force, magical thinking, anger, yearning or war. In the poem ‘Granddad’, “He was the first dead I’d ever seen. I longed to lift/ That yellow, sunken, unsmiling face/To find the man who whispered Faith, faith when red angels set/ His chest aglow with rubies.” In ‘Lazarus’, the poem’s narrator “cannot stop the tide that will bear him away.” And in ‘Songs of the sea’, there is a kind of shot across the bough aimed at arrogant Death, “True to say, what the sea wants it gets.”

But we don’t stay here, in this embattled phase, there’s a farther shore of acceptance too: In ‘The Boat builder’, the elderly boat maker (and we can guess at his age, because we’re told that he’s built his fleet of boats, that he’s watched it sail passed) and he aims to “untie from all his concerns … He’ll moor up at this quay, rig his boat and heave his anchor to the sky.”

This is electrifying, searching poetry. I can’t wait for Hooker’s next collection.

Posted by

Jo Ely

Described as "an intelligent, creative, imaginative, original writer" by Guardian Book of the Year author Trevor Byrne, Jo Ely has been Shortlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize and has had a short story selected for an anthology edited by New York Times Notable Book of the Year author Sandra Tyler (Woven Tale Press, US ed. 2016). Jo has published short stories, children's books and written interviews with writers for the Woven Tale Press. She also reviews for the world's first online Empathy Library. 'Stone Seeds' is Jo's first novel, published by Urbane Publications (Amazon.co.uk).

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