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This review is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.

Cover of Harvest
Toby Martinez de las RivasReparation Sister Mary Agnes, Harvest Guillemot Press, 2016
£8.00

There is something peculiarly fascinating in reading poets who were largely disregarded in their own time, and whose work is re-discovered. One reads against two contexts: the literary culture which originally passed them over, and that in which they subsequently find themselves. On both counts, Sister Mary Agnes is an oddity. Born Pamela Chalkley in 1928, she is a poet with an unusual biography which is hard to disentangle from the substance of her work. In brief, after thirty years as a nun in the contemplative order of Poor Clares in Lynton, Devon (during which time she published three short collections), she fell in love, suffered a breakdown, attempted suicide and finally left the order in 1976. She never returned and remained in relative obscurity until her death in 2014. She seems to have been largely uninfluenced by the dominant literary fashions of her day, despite sharing a publisher with a young Andrew Motion and cultivating friendships with Elizabeth Goudge and Kathleen Raine. Certainly her work is lyrically unadorned, meditative, direct, simple. The only poet with whom she seems to have any kinship is Jack Clemo. The two corresponded and share several features – their grappling with a difficult faith, for example; an intense sensuality; an occasional lack of guile, which in Clemo’s work seems a deliberate baiting of the establishment but in Sister Mary’s comes across more as innocence.

One often has a sense of an unguarded voice groping after a satisfactory image, and unable, quite, to achieve it. For example, in one of the few titled ...


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