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Review - "Birds of the Sherborne Missal" by Elizabeth Bletsoe

Steve Spence

“Birds of the Sherborne Missal” by Elisabeth Bletsoe, pub Shearsman. 89pp. £12.95

This is a beautifully produced book which includes reproductions of the original artworks of the Sherborne Missal alongside texts which are based on early documentation, together with Bletsoe’s own observations and combines learning with experience to produce poetry which is very much at the high end of contemporary work. Bletsoe is curator of Sherborne Museum in her native Dorset and as has been pointed out elsewhere although she is not a prolific writer everything she produces is of a very high quality. She has, in fact, claim to be one of the best half dozen or so contemporary British poets and it’s still something of a puzzle that this hasn’t really been recognised.


The preface gives an excellent succinct introduction to the work at which point the best thing for the reader to do is to plunge into the texts themselves and experience the pleasure of writing which works on several levels. Each text or poem is no more than a page long and each begins with a block of writing followed by a concluding resume, often a haiku or short poem. One of Bletsoe’s great strengths is an ability to merge different kinds of writing into a coherent whole and her wide range of diction makes for an enthralling read. There is a strong sense of the ‘sound aspect’ to these poems and they are such fun to read. You may not pick up all the references (though these can be followed up later) but the mix of scholarship and aesthetic brilliance all works together in a manner which makes for a wonderful reading experience. There are twenty pages of text, each separated by white-space pages and the layout, typography and inclusion of illustrations on each facing page is very much at the high end of Shearsman’s  prolific output. Here are extracts from a few of my favourites:


          Roddock, Robin, (Erithacus rubecula) – ‘Bringer of fire from  / the chthonian levels, that our lives might blaze inches from  / shadow; burnt feathers colour of bright fame. Covering the /

bodies of the dead with leaves.  tweezing grey hairs / in the bathroom; outside a robin’s  / winter song’


          Waysteter, Pied wagtail (Motacilla, alba) – ‘Elemental scratching; refusal of the / public-  school boys to tread its deep surface, architectural / spaces infested with elegant & obsolete ritual’


          Throstil cock, male Blackbird (Turdus merula) – ‘Desultory & melodious with more intricate phraseology  / as the season advances / discarded notes upwardly forming / invisible rooms of ancillary miracles in which to inhabit/yet / to be built.  midnight alarm-calls: / last bird of evening or / first of morning’


          Kyngynfystere, Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) – ‘River babel is silence & intransigence, relinquished, / becoming liquid. Interpretations manifest beyond the / confines of a small group of trees. …………..

Skimmers  & chasers. A floating / nest at once hollow & solid, hexatinellid structures / crystallising outward.  blue   blue my love: is / blue your illuminating / presence in my life’


          Unnamed, identified as Peacock (Pavo cristatus) – Our gorse commons lie neglected & abandoned, a forgotten / artefact of our cultural history. – ‘Screaming against the storm, the /

domination of black. Papilonaceous, myrmechochorus. / Sodden with honey, it cleareth the mouth. /

for he hath an horrible voice: / voice of a fiend / head of a serpent / pace of a thief’


          Wodewale, Green Woodpecker (Picusviridis) – ‘Chips & bits, glittering, gritted. A regular split-fig; goes / where the devil can’t & that’s between the oak & the / rind.   into the trees crying pleu / pleu pleu pleu rain / foul wet tile wood / spate


There’s a lot of social history embedded in this collection, alongside of course the obvious natural history references and Bletsoe’s mixing of the archaic with the vernacular works a treat, so good on the ear and eye. The sheer pleasure in reading her work comes from its mix of registers, its variety of diction and the exceptional way in which she fuses experience with learning and makes it all appear as easy and natural as breathing. Her work is rich and highly-textured and, although complex, never obscure or unrewarding.


I’d like to add that alongside Andrew Martin’s recent Shoals of Starlings Waterhare Press, (a meditation on personal psychology as much as on wildlife) Birds of the Sherborne Missal is easily the most intriguing and brilliant creative work I’ve come across dealing with the subject of the natural world.


Copyright © Steve Spence

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