All The Invisibles
Light is threaded through Mandy Pannett's poems, along with a tantalising sense of individuals captured momentarily in many different landscapes, among them, the artists, Durer, Seurat, Monet and Ravilious.
Her language is visual and athletic with metaphor, she's drawn to lost traditions and phrases and brings them into the present with a playful sense of inquiry.
This book moves through a range of emotional states - all of them bittersweet: melancholy, change, curiosity - but Pannett is spare with words and her lines feel charged as a result. Expect to be startled by the images she creates, intrigued and excited by her talent for description and the insights her poems offer you, like delicious, rare fruit.
Mandy Pannett is a poet who assumes a broad context for her work. She looks closely at what is around her, but her gaze is widened through the art of Durer, of Seurat, while many great ones of our language sound through the words she chooses.
Her book starts with the Medlar – ‘a smutty fruit’, so she calls it. It starts with sensual, with visceral things: knives, cooked meat, a hawk ripping a feather. ‘Guts’ is a word that recurs, and strong Saxon consonants accompany her engagement. The lyrical is always hovering, but if she does bring daisies she makes us work for it.
Then the tone changes. Mythological and historical themes broaden the rhythms. All the invisibles begin to be apprehended – the message on a sundial, runes on a feather, aeolian rain.
In All the Invisibles Mandy Pannett brings a host of figures from bible, myth and history to brief but vivid life. They step out of the Bayeaux tapestry, from Shakespeare’s plays, classical and Norse myth, along with beasts – hares, horses, foxes, flies – and are fleetingly illuminated, for the most part in free verse, but there are also sonnets and terza rima, before retreating once again into their shadowy worlds. Mandy writes of the fragility of life, of “…the pitch and lurch of survival”. Hers are uneasy, rather disturbing poems, “…mottoes on sundials are frail”, “…dishes are filled with motifs of death”; she reminds herself and us that Time devours all his myriad creatures, their deeds and their desires.
Mandy is no optimist, offers no consolation, yet, while “…narratives creep up and leap from gold designs of prophets, clutch at me through jewelled patterns, clawing out of hell…” … finds a comfort and delight in small things such as the misreading of a word (The Starling Point), even in rot “…the medlar…best after frost”, in words: the names of colours, stones, even the names on beer labels, and the thought that
“Who was it said if you paint a small cage
then later the bird will fly in?
Here is a balcony ready for two.
I will draw chairs, a table with books,
a jug and glasses for wine.”
There is real treasure in these remarkable poems for Mandy Pannett relishes language: with Shakespearean exuberance in "Best after Frost" where the medlar is a " smutty fruit... flesh and luscious rot"; or with dark magic as in "Titania's Wood" which is poisoned by "wolfsbane, hemlock, a low-hanging moon in a pool of frogs". Her subject matter ranges from a Bayeux tapestry horse telling its tale to the murky relationship of Thomas and Shade, travelling from mediaeval romance to the blunt "street cred" of today. A rich collection.
‘Best After Frost’ was chosen by the Inter Board Poetry Community as their poem of the year 2011, and quite right too. Medlars – who remembers medlars? More to the point, who will be able to forget this ‘smutty fruit’ after reading a garnet-red and delicious slurpy-slimy poem that sets the tone for an extraordinarily vivid collection. I would have been happy with a whole book of Pannett’s nature poetry, could have sat back in a comfy chair and read through one brilliant imagist poem after another, but it was not to be. By the second poem, I was having to start googling references. This was not a chore – this was a Good Thing. I will explain.
Pannett breaks us in gently with the word. ‘psychopomp’. Great word, but I didn’t know what it meant so looked it up. The definition made perfect sense. Pannett could have used an easier word in her poem title, but why should she? Why dumb down? The chosen word is always precisely the right word, never the one that is better known but might not do the job so well. In ‘Psychopomp: a Guide’, Pannett explores the fine line that is the meeting place between the contemporary and the mythological. This theme runs through the entire collection. Ancient and modern – are we really so different from our ancestors? ‘Two For One’ is an age old tale of vengeance told in a contemporary setting, so any doubts that we’re somehow different is quickly dispelled. The ancients will have their say later in the collection, and they go far, far further back than I expected – but more on that later.
Pannett expects her readers to have a reasonable familiarity with concepts from the ancient times through the dark ages to the Renaissance and beyond. Unfortunately not all of us have her level of erudition, but we no longer need volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica weighing down our teak veneer wall units – we have Wikipedia – and even if we didn’t, the poems stand by themselves without the necessity to know all the references. Knowledge adds an angle, a colour – but it’s not essential. We can read about the traveller from the ship of fools as he explores dry land, and sense the irony because Pannett has made it clear and has no interest in veiling her message. You’d be hard pressed not to understand the poem even if you didn’t know the historical uses of the image. I became so used to looking stuff up that when I came to poems where I was sure I was missing references, I actually emailed the author for clues. As often as not, it turned out that the poem in question was exactly what it said it was and I didn’t need a Masters in Classics or anything else. Sometimes a hare in a field is just a hare in a field. One forgets.
One of the most intriguing offbeat facts I learned from this collection was that Catherine of Aragon brought sweet potatoes to England as part of her dowry. Pannett was not making this one up. I checked. And Henry VIII really did set a competition for growers in England, none of whom managed to cultivate the plant successfully. Out of this random historical fact, Pannett has built a powerful and unusual poem. In ‘Trust the Sun’, Odysseus makes his first appearance. He’ll be back – unless I’m misreading one of the poems, which is always possible. They are so rich in ideas, it’s easy to go off at a tangent and see tales that aren’t really there, but that’s an undeniable strength as it brings out the story-teller in the reader.
You think you know certain images, but you don’t, not really; not until you’ve viewed them through Pannett’s eyes. What if a horse in the Bayeux tapestry could speak? What indeed. The poor beast would suffer ‘bowels of blancmange’ before experiencing the terrible transitions of its brief history, assaulted by ‘arrows like blowflies’. And what is really going on in Millais’ painting of Isabella (she who loved a severed head) that arrived via Boccaccio and Keats and ended up dissected by Mandy Pannett’s pen? Everything is in precise Pre-Raphaelite sharp focus in the painting, and also in the poem, but here it’s at an oblique angle. There’s probably a doctoral thesis to be written exploring the difference in precision between words and pictures with specific reference to Isabella.
In Durham Botanical Gardens there’s a block of marble engraved with Basil Bunting’s famous lines from Briggflatts: ‘Pens are too light. Take a chisel to write’. I thought of that line on reading ‘Mottoes on Sundials’, as well as the more obvious ‘Time is. Time was. Time is past’ which supposedly originates in Greene’s Elizabethan play ‘Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay’ despite sounding much older. Be that as it may, Pannett has found inspiration in the mottoes engraved on sundials. This is a lovely idea. She has taken each inscription and turned it into a poem. Aulus and Lucius built their sundial in Pompeii, so there is great resonance in the lines about voids in the ash – but Pompeii is never mentioned. I find this theme of taking scenes from antiquity and showing them from a different angle refreshing and beguiling.
In ‘Stopping a Bunghole’, I can’t help but feel we have the complete thoughts of Shakespeare (but mostly Hamlet) in one short poem. And why not. This is certainly one possible reading. Pannett never lays down strictures; never insists on a specific meaning. She gives you the best words in the best order, but after that it’s up to you, as should be the case with all literature.
I’m an art nut, so for me, personally, it’s the art poetry that does it; that makes me want to read and re-read. If you want to know how to seduce this particular reader, write about Dürer. I know the artist, now show me the man. This is precisely what Pannett does. Just as I’ve settled into the Renaissance, however, ‘A New Cartography’ comes along and I’m yanked back into the present; a present so removed from the past that this reads as sci-fi at first, but no – it’s contemporary. This is real. This is happening now. I’m back in the present and seconds later I’m addressing a ‘True Fly’ which unexpectedly takes me into DH Lawrence territory and made me think of his mosquito poem. Then, without warning, we jump back to ancient times with ‘Group of Eight’. Coincidentally, when I first read this poem I’d just been looking at Neanderthal cave paintings of seals looking weirdly like double helix DNA. There is something about cave art that ties us together across the millennia in a way words cannot. Language grows and changes. The owners of those eight hands wouldn’t speak any language we know, but we know what a bison looks like and we understand the concept of deer flying across the sky – we’ve never lost that sense of wonder, of the numinous in nature.
‘The Hurt of Man’ needs to be read with Sibelius playing in the background to get into the right mood. This one sent me scurrying off to find out who ploughed the field of vipers and to generally renew my woefully slight acquaintance with the ‘Kalevala’. I like poetry that says, ‘Look, here’s something that happened that you may have read about – go and read more’. I did, and I’m glad I did.
The poetry of the potential typo is represented in the lovely misreading poem, ‘The Starling Point’ where the dull little church of St Olave Hart Street is transformed by the idea of ‘a word / misread that ushers in rune-stones’, but just as the reader settles into this comfortable place, Pannett throws ‘Stunted’ into the mix, a searing poem of what happens when a child has to find some way to survive a cruel upbringing – one of the most powerful and unsettling images of the entire collection.
‘Later, All At Once’ is a wondrous bunch of snippets. No, snippets is too mean a word. A time-traveller’s compendium of moments? Yes, that’s closer. A veritable gallimaufry of images, all of them precise, every one crystal clear. Another clear image sings through in ‘Every Last Bell’. I’ve drawn that bridge with its ‘glittering vertebrae’. This falcon’s eye view of the City zooms in on what might not be immediately obvious, but is no doubt somebody’s prey. When reading this one I couldn’t help thinking of Macbeth and the bell that summons Duncan to heaven or hell. On the subject of sounds – I want to hear the reconstructed fossil’s chirp. Read the collection, and you will too, I promise.
Driftwood has so much more resonance than dust or clay. In ‘Woman-Tree’ I had to assume Pannett was channelling her Norse forebears, and if she hasn’t got any, that’s quite bizarre. Of course she’s got some. Must have. Without getting all Jungian about it, there’s a strong impression of collective memory at work here. Her ancestors could read this newly written poem and understand every word, every reference and every thought. Stories – we all have stories. We understand such things. William Shakespeare wrote many of them down for us, which is handy. ‘Titania’s Wood’ takes me straight to the 1935 Fritz Reinhardt version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, one of my absolute favourite Shakespeare adaptations for the dangerous other-worldness with which he imbues the visuals. I’m convinced that while the cameras were pointing one way, this poem was happening somewhere else, very nearby.
There are so many more wonderful images in this collection. I wanted to list them all, but knew that would be impossible. Read the book instead, as that’s where you’ll find faces of foxes, whimsical looks at the heart, achingly sad poems, and others that make you remember how extraordinarily potent cheap music can be (thank you Noel Coward). Then clutch your birthstone and hope for salvation.
Or visit Room 44 at the National Gallery. I’m talking ‘Seurat, It’s a Long Sunday’ here. The Sunday picture is of course ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’. The picture on ‘the other side’ has to be ‘Bathers at Asnières’ from the description. The poem tells the reader to go north – the empty beach, I would guess, is ‘The Channel of Gravelines, Grand Fort-Philippe’ and your boat can be tied up on the river bank (The Seine at Asnières). I tend to go even further north. I love Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s ‘Lake Keitele’, and if it’s not mentioned in so many words in the poem, it’s only because we’re concentrating on Seurat’s work. It’s still there. You can’t miss it. Go and have a look. Does the reader need to be familiar with this particular room in the gallery? I know these paintings so well, I find it impossible to do a ‘new’ reading of the poem, so I really have no idea.
After Seurat, we have Monet – his life in reverse through ‘A Suggestion of Leaves’, a beautifully conceived and executed poem, but before getting too comfortable with the French Impressionists, we’re yanked back in time again. Mesolithic morphs into Neolithic, but hindsight is unavailable to this stone age man. Is this progress? He can’t tell.
Why didn’t I know the paintings of Eric Ravilious? I do now. I read the poem, looked up the artist. Ah – a student of Paul Nash. I love Nash’s work. I’m taking so long looking at the paintings, I’ve forgotten about the poem. Go back to look at it. This is an artist I should explore further, but before I do that there are a few gentle poems and then suddenly we’re back to pre-history and crossing the land bridge that brought people from Siberia to America. ‘The Kelp Days’ is a stunning poem. Vivid and real and immediate. I’m not surprised to find it won first prize in the Wirral Festival of Firsts 2011.
Remember Odysseus? His father was Old Laertes. Did Odysseus dream of the artichokes and olive groves back on old Ithaca when he was far, far away? I certainly think Pannett dreams of the South Downs. That distinctive countryside pervades much of the collection, particularly the title poem, ‘All the Invisibles’. At this point the reader is nearly at the end of the book. Just a few more intriguing facts to learn ‘Ignatius of Antioch Looks for Stars’. He does? Okay, I’ll look him up, and also try to find the Peckham Rye reference and – good grief. In 1767, William Blake visited Peckham and had a vision of an angel in a tree. I didn’t know that. Oh yes – the poem. What was that about? I return... I’ve a feeling the music of the spheres is going to link this poem to the last: ‘Aeolian Rain’. Yes it does. Angels; this is all about angels – maybe. And everything else.
I’ve resisted talking about aspects of the poems that put one in mind of the collective unconscious or archaic remnants mostly because I don’t know enough about such concepts to say anything sensible, but if I did know about them, I’d be able to analyse this collection and explain its universality in a very technical way. As I don’t, I’m relieved to be able to suggest you read the book instead. I can guarantee that these poems are far more enlightening than any essay I might be able to write. Ideally, take the collection to an art gallery and read it there. You might suffer sensory overload, but it will be worth it.
These are poems of ripeness and rot, of abundance and re-growth, of death and fertility. Mandy Pannett’s Invisibles are ‘silences moving the air’. Her poems are textured by the ghosts of myth and fable, by the shadow of the ancients, by poets and painters, Diggers and Levellers – and the common housefly. We meet a defender of Canute, Samuel Pepys, and Mother Goose in the space of a few lines.
Travelling through time is something that happens a lot in these poems, but it is, perhaps, most fully realised in the linked fragments of poetry and prose poetry that is ‘Later, All At Once’ – a visionary work that takes us backwards and forwards through time. Here we move in a non-linear way from pre-history to Sussex in 2010, where the repetition of ‘less than an hour till night’ from first to final stanza makes a rather sobering connection in a seemingly endless sweep of history.
The binding themes of wealth and prodigality, dung, death and decay are serious, but always handled with a lightness of touch, often with a reminder of the absurdities of life in all its forms. The opening poem ‘Best After Frost’ gives us a flavour of what is to come. The medlar, an absurd fruit,
A smutty fruit: Shakespearian – seaside picture –
postcard rude, designed to raise a belly
laugh with hints of bums and holes
also resonates with decay and rebirth, blood and the ‘thundering, tumbrel wheels’ of revolution.
All The Invisibles is an imaginative and intelligent collection that rewards multiple readings. That isn’t to deny the immediate pleasure of language and imagery, and poetic verve which is to be found throughout. But just delve beneath the surface and you will find a richness of thought that will resound long after the final page has been turned. This is a book to be treasured and returned to.
If you only buy one poetry book this year – buy this one. A collection so sumptuous and full of wonder, that I hardly know where to begin. In her poems, Mandy explores the breadth and depth of human history and the natural world as vignettes of time.
Here you will find a myriad of images and themes, mysterious and complex yet at the same time striking and simple. Each poem offers the reader the opportunity to enjoy the poet’s love of language for its own sake, or to scurry and research the meaning and back story to so many of the poems. I shall pick out some of my favourites.
The first poem 'Best After Frost’ is a perfect opener - succulent and almost decadent in suggestion of the medlar as a “smutty fruit” it impacts on all the senses from the smell of ripe cheese “like Camembert” to “the feel of rainfall in Montmartre”. By the end I really wanted to “suck this flesh and luscious rot” for myself.
A millennia of time is contained in the twelve short intimate lines of ‘A Fossil’s Chirp’ where the reader is compelled to stop and listen “I have heard them at dusk, those crickets,” and consider their existence back into the Jurassic age.
With a poet’s insight ‘Heartwood’ empathises with the “Firescar” of a burned out wood and like a lover, concludes at the end “There is still sap/ in heartwood fecundity/ in roots.” This poem is filled with the longing of a ballad and the acceptance that life goes on.
'Later, All at Once' seems to me to be the heart of the collection - a capture of its essence - a story within a story if you like – a microcosm nestled in the middle like a Russian matryoshka doll. The poem ranges backwards and forwards across history. Don’t try to know everything that has gone on in the poet’s head, but relish the journey on which you are taken.
And so to the title poem – ‘All the Invisibles’. It sits enigmatically as the third last poem in the collection. Who or what are the Invisibles? They are everything you have been reading in this collection; they are nowhere and everywhere, mysterious and imponderable “as we wander the way of the shell”. Behind the landscape you are looking at is the landscape which you cannot see – everything that is under the skin, in the depths of the oceans, around the next corner, in the darkness of history and in all human emotion.
But I have only begun to tell of what is on offer in this marvellous collection. Dip in again and again – a book at bedtime in each and every poem. It is a collection that you will go back to for years to come, and continue to find something new and fresh every time.
Mandy Pannett’s poetry has its own musical quality that threads through each poem and leads each one to its natural conclusion. On the back of these rhythms we are taken through time and space to varying landscapes:
He know a rock upon the moors
That legend says was once a Troll.
All he can tell is that his world
His scary and stinking-of-animals world
(From A Mesolithic slant)
to Nordic mythological beasts and people, such as Ask and Embla who were created at the beginning of time out of driftwood. In this collection we can also find a variety of painters and poets (Durer,Ravilious,Seurat, Keats) and historical events- we even hear the voice of a horse from the Bayeux Tapestry! We are in an illuminated world where viewpoints allow all the invisibles to hide in-between.
To read these poems is to peep through a kaleidoscope where colours and objects shift and shake and where momentary illuminations of scene and feeling are juxtaposed by images that make a prism for the poems.
Mandy Pannett uses many forms of poetry, from sonnet to free verse. She excels in choosing the right form for each poem.
I strongly recommend All the Invisibles to poetry lovers.
Since Mandy Pannett nods towards Shakespeare’s use of the medlar (it is mentioned in four of his plays ) , here is how he describes its essential characteristic in a witty riposte from Rosalind to Touchstone in As You Like It :
You’ll be rotten ere you be half ripe , and that’s the right virtue of the medlar
And that process of decay is most effectively registered in the first three lines of ‘Best After Frost’. The statement is simple and straightforward enough but it is made using words chosen for the way in which sound echoes / supports meaning : The alliteration of ‘ripens’ and ‘rots’ at once establishes one process as an extension of the other and the softness of the rotting fruit is suggested by a mixture of alliteration and consonance using the soft sounds of m and s – mysterious..medlar..ripens..softens..rots..camembert..progress..mould’. Beautifully done.
But from there , the poem takes off in some surprising directions , skidding over Shakespeare ( you need to know your references – the poet does nothing to explain here ) and landing on a saucy seaside postcard of the kind typical of the cartoonist Bamforth . What has happened is that the shape of the fruit is being compared to those impossibly large and rounded buttocks so characteristic of Bamforth’s drawings . But for the effect of comic bathos , the comparison is almost worthy of one of the metaphysicals . If you don’t immediately get ‘holes’ , look at a picture of a medlar whilst the cartoon postcard is still in your mind…
In the third verse , ‘slimy , slurpy process’ again works beautifully in terms of sound echoing meaning – but ‘blettir’ , the French verb for that process of decay , suddenly whisks the poet’s imagination away to France – and there are some very adroit bits of morphing here : rainfall…rain and footfall…rain ( in its pitter-patter sound ) suggesting drumming…. And having turned a very sharp corner of thought , there we are in the French revolution ( deftly hinted at by the ‘tumbril wheels’ ) with the decadent aristocracy beginning to steer us back towards medlars in being a ‘ripe and rotten group’. The near repetition between verse 1 and verse 4 ( ripens / ripe , rots /rotten ) is quite deliberate.
The colour of the flesh of the decaying medlar has already implicitly taken us towards blood ( the inferred guillotine executions ) but in the last verse we get a different colour-association – that of the garnet-stone , which surprisingly , in turn , leads us to medlar jelly , so that the process of decay does not end in mere annihilation but either in what is saved as ‘sweet for Spring’s return’ or in immediate sensual pleasure , juicily evoked in the squelchy sounds of ‘flesh’ and ‘luscious’.
The poem begins and ends with the fruit itself . In between , the poet’s imagination has taken us , in a mere nine lines or so , on a journey touching on Shakespeare , seaside postcards and the French revolution , all things connected with or developed from the treatment of the subject , though I quibble that Shakespeare – the name only – is a bit unfair on the reader : you either know the references or you don’t.
My other slight quibble is that I wish the very last line ( containing the italicised title ) kicked back a little harder into what has been read earlier . But it is a finely written poem with images that are memorable because they are fresh , original and surprising.
One poet should not attempt to review ("critique?") the poem of another. If it is worthy of its calling, I immediately seize its theme and start to hang a poem of my own on the scaffolding it presents.
In "Stunted", Mandy's scaffolding is masterful. We are presented with a boy in a state of wonder, whose raven life is a mixture of sweets and abuse. We follow his growth into a resourceful and purposeful youth. The directions he has chosen are not to be admired, but to be understood. The engines of his motivation are a rock in his chosen wilderness, a penknife (requirement of every boy) and a fertile imagination. Confinement in a dustbin is artfully contrasted with the freedom we imagine on the moors. His friend and mentor is the Troll, as stunted and as lively as himself.
This portrait requires only eighteen lines, and it is complete. Would I change anything? Probably some lineation, and elimination of the word "upon" in two places where it seems to serve only to preserve the iambic pentameter — the perfect rhythm for the oral reading which must always be a test of excellence. As usual, Mandy's poem succeeds in all respects.
E. Russell Smith
I found this poem (‘Best After Frost’) very accessible, radiating sight, smell and touch and historic resonance.
With an intimate gossip the poet shares with us how far the medlar fruit can extend the senses. I wanted to inspect this fruit, to hold it in my hand, to absorb what the poet clearly feels and offers the reader; just as the freezing fruit releases its flavour.
We are not only invited into lascivious speculations and earthy imagery but also into a historical connection of a time when the dried blood from the French Revolution and the rain of Montmartre mingled.