The passage of time is tangible in Maggie Butt’s fifth collection. These poems use history, memory, work and travel as lenses to examine the inevitable pains and sharp pleasures at the heart of our transient lives.
Maggie Butt is a poet who writes with elegance and wit, skill and sensitivity: her new collection offers the reader powerful insights into our twenty-first century purposes and predicaments. Time, work, birth and death; love and loss; the essentials of human experience are here.
More alert than many contemporary poets, she is also haunted by a disturbing awareness of lurking danger, ‘a cliff edge in the dark’; by the frailty of the human condition, and by its pathos. There is wistfulness as well as courage. RV Bailey
Maggie Butt’s poems focus, with clarity and humour, on the past’s strength, the present’s warmth and on all our futures: tender and apprehensive, as briefly glimpsed as twilight. Alison Brackenbury
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Buy a signed copy of Degrees of Twilight now for £6 including pp.
By Laurie Evan Owen on September 10, 2015
Amazon.co.uk & Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
5 out of 5 stars
Maggie Butt’s fifth collection gives a rewardingly balanced overview of her poetic virtuosity and achievement. It is a book brimming over with diverse pleasures. I can think of very few contemporary poems so crammed full of hedonistic rapture as ‘Cherries’, and few so thoroughly endowed with the harrowing effectiveness of ‘Pain’. From the mischievous hilarity of ‘A Woman of a Certain Age…’ to the measured despondency of ‘Walls’, the depth of her emotional range is both refreshing and remarkable.
Some poets do loss and some do epiphany; some do simplicity and some do complexity; some do fun and some do trauma. Scarcely any, however, are doing all of these with the same high levels of acumen, consistency and lyric poise as Maggie Butt. This latest collection is her best yet. A many-layered delight.
By Shelagh Weeks on August 3, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
5 out of 5 stars
‘The poems are superb – so poised and rich. They are delicate and razored and really speak to me. It’s not just that there are echoes of my own life, they open things up, have assurance and dance.”
By alison duckham.
5 out of 5 stars
This is a wonderful collection, a moving mediation on time and immortality. Yet, despite having these strong themes, it feels organic. You can get lost in this book. There are fabulous details, which are built deftly to create images that stay with you. Some surprising facts too (about nautical time, for example). I highly recommend ‘Degrees of Twilight.’
Review by Jonathan Taylor, of “Degrees of Twilight,” by Maggie Butt
From Everybody’s Reviewing October 2015
According to Shelley, “poetry … may be considered as the bridge thrown over the stream of time” – and there is certainly something peculiar to poetry about its relationship to time, something which marks poetry out – which, maybe, is part of its essence. Whereas painting and sculpture are naturally static forms, with no obvious fourth dimensions (though, of course, there are ways in which that stasis is subverted or complicated); whereas prose narrative fiction, at least in English, is naturally a linear form (in that it’s read in a linear way, and set out as such, even when linearity is brought into question); and whereas music is necessarily experienced in a linear, almost narrative way; poetry is different. Often read in a non-linear way (you read a poem, then perhaps re-read it, and your eye does not necessarily move smoothly across the page, left to right), poetry is perhaps the most successful art form at capturing the complexity of time, at throwing a “bridge … over the stream of time.” Clearly, narrative prose fiction does have a fourth dimension – but, as I say, that time element assumes, more often than not, a basic linear, chronological mode, even where that linearity is disrupted.
Poetry can do something different: poetry, as Maggie Butt realises in her brilliant new collection, Degrees of Twilight (London Magazine, 2015), can simultaneously hold in its hand the present, past and future. In Butt’s poetry, the reader can “listen to the future: rain-rocked, lake-like” precisely because “nothing divides the waters from the waters” – past, present, future waters all intermingle in her poems. Butt’s poetry hears voices “calling down the years” from the past, watches as the present “all goes on,” and foresees “futures latent as a roll of undeveloped film.”
There are poems here which, to use her own words, are “forward-facing” and ones which are “backward-facing,” watching the “open country of the past / spread itself far as the eye can see.” And there are a lot of poems which are both: in the remarkble poem “Time Travellers,” for example, “time zig-zags like a running man avoiding bullets,” encompassing, as it does, scenes from a whole personal history; in “New Mothers,” the mothers cry not just for present pain, but also for future “falls we can’t womb you against: / the bully teachers, failures, phone calls in the night / beyond our arms,” for which the mothers “paid up-front in tears”; in “Variance Analysis,” a dull meeting “in a windowless room” is happening simultaneously “while the first day of spring unfurls outside; / and you are motorbiking scented country lanes / absorbing this year’s deficit.”
This is the poetry of simultaneity, of synchronicity, as multiple pasts, presents and futures co-exist in the same poems, sometimes even same lines. In the final poem, “Wish,” the narrator poignantly attempts to reach towards a kind of Shelleyean timelessness, whereby, as Shelley himself puts it, “time and place and number are not.” Here, future, past and present – the “years scampering by”- all finally seem to dissolve in the face of the narrator’s wishes: “let there ever be you / let there ever be love.”
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
London Grip Poetry
Thomas Ovans reviews recent collections by Maggie Butt and Emma Lee
I like poems – and books – which begin with clear assertive statements; and the opening poem in Maggie Butt’s seventh collection, Degrees of Twilight, declares confidently that It’s almost always August in hotels, / and always present tense. It’s also perfectly acceptable for a poem to shift its point of view; and the injunction a couple of verses later to Peel back years like faded floral wallpaper is an extremely appropriate one for a book which is largely meditative and reminiscent. The theme of times remembered is reinforced in the second poem, a well-made pantoum which tells us (twice) that time zig-zags like a running man avoiding bullets.
The book’s title poem is about the technical definitions of certain kinds of twilight, as measured by the sun’s angle below the horizon. It reminds us of the importance of thoughtful observation – how often do we actually notice the beguiling truth that one by one the stars reveal themselves / in slow strip-tease, as if they were not always there? The term ‘Civil Twilight’ denotes the first intimation of darkness which, for Butt, conjures up memories of a long-gone time when the shrill of the park-keeper’s whistle sent children scuttling home before the gates closed (unless they chose to leave by the fox-hole in the fence). Such down-to-earth details make for the best of the retrospective poems – like ‘Travelling Backwards’, where fields seen from a train are hereandgone hereandgone, or ‘Oakfield Road’ with its black-and-white star-checkered path and velvet density of moss in clinker-built garden walls.
Butt also makes good use of detail – such as the healing powers of Comfrey or ‘Knit-bone’ – when she steps further back through her own childhood to imagine the tough realities of her grandmother’s life. But such reaching across the generations becomes most effective in the sequence about a mother’s dying. Butt compares a momentary separation from her daughter on the Moscow underground – heedless / uncaring of her smallness and my panic / as the doors close between us with the sensation of her frail mother’s hand
slipping from mine in slow motion and not knowing
if there’s a station further down the line
where she might watch for me.
The poems in this group play cleverly with overlapping awareness of present illness and past/passing experiences. There is a moving analogy between prolonged birth-pangs and the labour of slow dying – both leading to an unknown world; and Butt launches a persuasive argument with Dylan Thomas which begins
Why not go gentle into that good night
like drifting into sleep from sun-soaked day
remembering the brightness of the light?
This powerful sequence continues into the sometimes neglected post-bereavement stages: ‘Death Valley’ admits there is
nothing to do but tip my hat against
the sun and flies. Lick cracked lips.
Plod on. Plod on. Plod through.
After this metaphorical trudge through Death Valley, the poems begin to deal with some real journeys. Butt is an empathetic traveller, sensitive to people and events whose space she is temporarily sharing. At Ellis Island she notes that every immigrant is here / behind our eyes. Visiting war graves in Umbria she reflects that St Francis preached to ancestors of birds who sing / here now; and in an Etruscan cemetery she is alert to
… the ghosts who ask
What did you do with my love? I laid her here
with oil and spice. I built a home and carved
her name over the door.
Not all of Butt’s travel experiences are sombre however. She has some fun speculating about possible consequences of having ‘bad fingerprints’ (in the opinion of US Homeland Security); and she paints vivid portraits of Cuba – described as my childhood with the heat / turned up and a land of bright colours where oil pumps nod like patient parrots. Cuba is a place still living out a dream that winds the clockwork of my rusty revolutionary heart.
Accounts of travelling come to an end with poems dealing with the return to work – about which Butt has some strongly negative views, likening the start of the working day to an advancing lion with deliberate paws and ready teeth and comparing the job itself to a minotaur savouring my hours like the arrival of new virgins.
These dark but tongue-in-cheek images of the world of work scarcely prepare us for the long poem ‘Pain’ which is probably the most striking piece in the book. It is a four page manifesto in the voice of pain itself, itemizing all the ways in which it can overwhelm us and reminding us that you can’t share me, even love can’t feel / the molten metal of another’s agony. The sustained firework display of suffering in this poem represents multiple attempts to capture the awful simplicity of pain’s grip. Yet Butt is spot-on with the way that the memory of pain is elusive and slippery, / an absence, an amputated limb, reminder // of the ghost of me but empty as a polo mint. This powerful poem – which could leave an impression only of despair at the sufferings of being human – is cleverly placed next to the more affirmative ‘Unfinished’ in which the figure of a slave in an abandoned Michelangelo sculpture yearns to yawn his yet unfinished yawn and to flex his rigid muscles. In short, he chooses life, each drop of agony and joy.
These later poems show the real strengths of Butt’s work. When she is dealing with serious topics her poetry is consistently well controlled and crafted. With lighter subjects, however, her judgement can be less assured; and some of the seaside sketches at the end of the book do not feel quite so polished compared with the strong material that has gone before. But overall Degrees of Twilight is a fine collection of atmospheric and evocative memory-poems which are all the more enjoyable because of the strong strand of appreciation and gratitude that runs through them.