'Tread Softly', read hard
Poetry is a merciless mistress. She will not stomach the skimper and the skimmer, yielding up her meaning only to those who weigh her words, one by one, paced, steady, reading as the writer wrote.
The bath is a good place to read verse. Good because quiet (after lunch, almost certainly), clean (one hopes), and free (in most houses) from interruption. One afternoon a few days ago, I retreated there with Tread Softly, a collection of poems by OCA creative writing graduate Mary Webster. Quickly, the sensations of hot water and weak Winter sun receded. In their place came the rhythm of a 12-month cycle through the volume’s opening quartet ‘Seasons Edges’:
The poems, dense and without dialogue, describe a year through vegetation –
‘Feel Spring’s flattery
Stir leaf’s unfurling flush and
up-rush surge of bud swarm.
S w e l l.’
(‘Balance’, v. 2);
‘(Too much shadow and old light)….underline
snail slime, spider web…..’
(‘Cusp’, v. 2)
‘Slow roll rose petal
Sets adrift into lapping dusk.’
(Brimful, v. 3);
and sound –
‘Wind snips at leaves;
Their rags flap like the last wash.’
(‘Frayed’, v. 3)
There are no surplus words in this tightly packed chapbook. All the strays have been sent away, chopped out through revision and revision. Each one of its 46 pages is branded with the writer’s studied craftsmanship.
The erotic promise of a new love affair is uncovered slowly in the 70 words of ‘Shelling Peas’, the silent tension between two people engaged in a mundane domestic chore released through the poem’s intrusive penultimate word:
‘Sounds are dulled
But for them falling
And her breathing
And her skin, her blushing skin.’
(‘Shelling Peas’, v. 5)
Human experiences – the struggle to know a strange land, being alone as dawn breaks, accepting the death of a parent – are the business of the book’s central section, ‘Here and There’. Born in England, Mary Webster has lived and worked on three different continents. For her, writing poetry is one of the ways in which she has got to grips with a new country – South Africa while she was writing the collection which became Tread Softly.
The elision of the title of the poem ‘This Foreign Land’ into the arresting first line ‘fills my mouth with stones’ whose ‘weight crushes words’, brutally confront the reader with the ancient role of the poet as a maker of meaning for members of a wider community.
The brackets formed around ‘Here and There’ by ‘Seasons Edges’ and ‘Four Elements’ give prominence to nature without man or woman. In ‘Water’, the concluding poem of the final quartet, the life-affirming succession of Spring into Summer, Autumn in to Winter, is replaced by the exhortation to:
‘Lie ‘till all your worldly cover is cleaned
And you return to your beginning.’
I closed the book and the front cover came to rest on my damp hand, the bath water cold and the sun gone, reading rewarded.
Mary Webster arranged the publication of Tread Softly through blurb.com in celebration of being awarded a first class honours Bachelor of Creative Arts degree in June 2011. Her degree has gained her additional recognition as The Most Distinguished Performance on an Undergraduate Degree Programme from an Outside Body from Buckinghamshire New University in academic year 2010/11. Tread Softly is her first collection of poetry.