From the first poem in Sarah James’s new collection Into the Yell, the balance between playful and powerful is apparent. Moving the reader into the zoo of her mind with “Welcome to the Zoo,” James take us through a mental menagerie, morphing human pain and the creative urge into various zoo creatures from the zebra to the orangutan. It’s a superb example of the continual line James walks between whimsy and intensity. “Daffodil Trail” takes a pastoral theme and turns it gritty, as stolen garden flowers unearth a childhood lost. The sardonic mingles with sweetness everywhere, in the broad spectrum that these poems traverse. James’s settings range from working holidays in France to student mishaps and illusions, disasters in Dominica, Grenada, and New Orleans, parental joy and pain, or the wonderful utilitarian power of a high-heeled Inuit in “The Inuit Who Couldn’t Give Up Heels”:
"While she waited – pale flamingo, midpirouette
– for a flash of life under the ice,
the red of her heels speared more fish
than two of them could eat."
The poems enlarge the tiniest of moments, such as the loss of a four year old’s birthday balloon, where a mother’s love and sense of guilt mingle so strongly that the reader can feel it:
"Thank you, I say; hear
even my words float away from him
as I wind his birthday ribbon so tight
that untied blue bruises my hand."
Throughout the book, the imagery is always powerful – drawing from myth, fairy tales, a painter’s palette, Blake, medical terminology, the beautician’s rooms, the seaside, and above all, the natural world. There is a definite domesticity in these poems as the speaker attends appointments, cares for children, takes snapshots, struggles with artistic expression, and tends the garden, but co-mingling with the everyday is the extraordinary, the sinister, the anxiety underlying the joy:
"That week a tree surgeon warned
the roots threatened our foundations;
it needed felling immediately.
My sky was about to fall. (“The Tree Surgeon Warned”)"
Some of the most intense poems in the book tackle the co-mingling of love and loss, as in “Slivers,” which charts a man’s visit to his unconscious partner – the moment of memory poignant as you feel both the woman's absence, and the memory of pleasure once shared:
"Slivers of time melt on his tongue,
taste buds unearth memories
buried like fossils between thin strata."
Other poems are humorous in a way that is rarely found in poetry, such “Missing Mantra,” which pokes fun at social networking, even as it retains a beautiful, poetic sensibility:
"while my husband sits up in the dark
polishing his grit of wisdom
in the hope he'll create a pearl."
Sarah James’s first collection is wonderfully mature and ambitious, charting a line across the moments in our shared lives that characterise and change us. No words are wasted as she brings us something as familiar as a dandelion and uses it to remind us of our own ephemerality and the joy and pain that will surely accompany the next image. The lightness and pleasure of Into the Yell with its evocative and funny illustrations of Russian dolls, belies the wisdom and depths of its words.