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Gillian Allnutt: Sojourner

Karyn COSTA
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Gillian ALLNUTT, Sojourner. Bloodaxe Books, 2004, 64 pages. ISBN: 1852246693.£7.95

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1Gillian Allnutt’s sixth collection is in many ways a reflection of the themes and style of contemporary British women’s poetry. Like Carol Rumens, Allnutt sets a number of poems against the background of Eastern Europe in the immediate post-war period, where the voices we hear are especially those of women and young girls trying to come to terms with suffering and loss. In the fourth part of the collection, the poet also imagines the reflections of the German expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker on the women and girls who sat for her, crystallizing their loneliness and anxiety: “She was alone in her heart I thought, / more than half alone. / She asked if I thought she was pretty.”

2 The paintings of the life of Jenny Armstrong, a shepherd in the Scottish borders, by Scottish artist Virginia Crowe, provide the subject of a group of poems in the first section. These paintings are about time and fleeting moments of heightened awareness. Allnutt is all too aware of how short life is: “She reads indoors / words grow smaller / The kettle on the stool waits with her through winter.” What will remain of Jenny Armstrong, of “the days wherein we have dwelt”? The letters, ornaments and clothes painted with such affection are rearranged by the poet as so many objects gathering dust long after she is gone: “The long-handled jar is alone, long after its long association with her.” For we are all merely visitors, as the epigraph to this collection reminds us: ”we are sojourners , our days on the earth are as a shadow.”

3The title poem “Sojourner” which opens the last part of the book is both a reflection on life and death and a reference to the African-American preacher Sojourner Truth who fought for the rights of Black women. In her famous declaration: “And aint I a woman, I have ploughes and planted and gathered into barns...” the inter-relation with Jenny Armstrong and  the echoes of Robert Burns and harvest hymns is very clear. Gillian Allnutt said of her: “My old woman is a sojourner on earth; in it but not of it; exiled here... Exile”

4The theme of exile appears as a leitmotif throughout the book. The poems in Part two are set immediately after the First and Second World Wars. In “Euphemia in 1949” the poet evokes her mother’s exile in London, where she longed for her Northumbrian home and the sound of her father singing: “Now through the smirr / her heart breaks, hearing her father Brodie with his kilt-bright chords.” The solitude of an ex-serviceman picked out of an anonymous crowd in a Lowry painting is dramatised to express his sense of exile and alienation: “1959 already... / People forget me. / Like a street-lamp in summer.”

5For Gillian Allnutt, people “seem lost in this overly material world”. The key to understanding lies in spirituality and answers must be sought in religion, history and nature. In part three she concentrates on this opposition between materialism and spiritualism with an ironical picture of a mass-mediatised “Sunday morning in “Still” and a series of poems which evoke the early Celtic saints, the “good ones of old” remembered at Compline, the traditional Northumbrian evening prayer. Yet: ”How awkward we are at Compline / We have no habits.” It is obviously not the Franciscan clothing that is missing but the regular prayer, the shift of focus back to God.

6Linda France underlined the ability of women poets to “almost physically inhabit history and the passage of time, […] in their own lives and those of their families, their parents generations and their childrens.” Gillian Allnutt is no exception and makes use of a wide range of voices to put into words the realities of suffering, persecution or separation. Some are obviously autobiographical, others more anonymous such as the German Woman and the abuse suffered at the hands of soldiers, which is almost audible:” How little their marching mattered to me. / Their laughter bruised my bones.”

7What is most striking is how difficult it is to express aloud what is often too painful to even think about. The poems are hesitant, words are repeated, many are monologues as no-one listens to what is trying to be said. These poems are full of holes. Holes left by people who have come and gone; others on the page – as many pauses as the speaker searches for the right words or simply the strength to utter them: “What was hard to understand-       the holes / in everything, the held wings broken.”

8Andrew Motion drew attention to the pressure on contemporary poets to be accessible, using only familiar language and structures. Gillian Allnutt is not afraid to realign or reinvent imaginative associations—she takes what she needs from nursery rhyme, popular hymns and songs and the Bible and makes wide use of lowland Scots. There is a broad scope of historical references to medieval Christianity which are not instantly recognisable. Allnutt expects “a certain amount of work from the reader.” Once that work is done the poems fit together like a jigsaw to form a whole.

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Référence électronique

Karyn COSTA, « Gillian Allnutt: Sojourner », E-rea [En ligne], 2.2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2004, consulté le 23 juin 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/458

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Karyn COSTA

University of Provence

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