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This review is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

DEFTNESS JO SHAPCOTT, Of Mutability (Faber) £12.99
ANNA ROBINSON, The Finders of London (Enitharmon) £8.99

Jo Shapcott’s latest collection is a grower. It contains several poems which on first glance appear simple, even lightweight, but which on closer inspection seem to alter their shapes and court multiple points-of-view. This makes her title appropriate, since ‘mutability’ describes not just the dismal literary flux invoked by Chaucer, Spenser and Shelley, but also the tendency of cells to undergo genetic mutation. Her book’s eponymous first poem describes consciousness, as she likes to, in scientific terms – ‘Too many of the best cells in my body / are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw’ – before modulating, through a subdued imperative – ‘Look down these days to see your feet / mistrust the pavement’ – into a weirdly injunctive sestet:

Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets,
angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye,
join them if you like, learn astrophysics, or
learn folksong, human sacrifice, mortality,
flying, fishing, sex without touching much.
Don’t trouble, though, to head anywhere but the sky.

Such verse could be said to critically inhabit – rather than straightforwardly critique – a couple of the conventions which bind the mainstream contemporary lyric. Shapcott not only abrades such poetry’s closing moment of uplift; she also explodes the equally predictable list which allows poets to fill out their lines without saying very much at all. We start to read the sestet expecting such a feel-good device but are soon derailed. The passage ...


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