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Right from the start, Penelope Shuttle lets us know she’s on thin ice. The only consolation is that she may be in

a place where, by admitting all she does not know, she can at last make a fresh beginning:

        My Life, I can’t fool you,

        you know me too well,

        I’m sad of myself,

        days lived in vain,

        you test me

        but bin the answers . . .

        I know you so well,

        My Life, not at all (9)

A poet at odds with life is hardly news, of course. In his poem, “The Lesson for Today,” Robert Frost said he had

“a lover’s quarrel with the world.” Yet, in the course of these 66 poems—her fourteenth collection—Shuttle

expresses a sense of alienation that seems to go beyond a mere “quarrel.” She describes a world in which we

cannot be entirely sure that we have fully experienced or accurately remembered anything, except perhaps our

hunger for meaning and communication. The only other certainty is that our days are numbered:

        I can’t bide my time forever

        so I glance at my life

        as it goes by

        lived and unlived



        dipped in time

        where I’m the day’s watcher (54)

It’s easy to overlook how effortlessly Shuttle establishes her distinctive voice, which she has learned to balance

on a razor’s edge, so that single syllables like “strange” and “skimped” and “dipped” can resonate. Sometimes she

uses assonance, as she does here, or rhyme, to link ideas, but her acoustic effects never draw attention to

themselves. Yet the sound of the lines is of prime importance to her. Her main organizing unit, she has said,

could not be simpler: “For me it is the way the poem breathes that gives it form.”

And somehow the fact that the ground seems to be shifting under her doesn’t prevent Shuttle’s being brisk

and breezy, if the mood strikes her. In the title poem, the speaker takes us darting through the streets of Oxford:

        I’m not

        as you see

        an official guided walking tour

        Like Fair Rosamund

        I quickstep down Rose Place

        like swift Alice

        I skip across St Aldate’s

        the brainbox city

        huffing and puffing in my ear

        I’m not hurrying off

        to visit a dozen harpsichords

        or the church

        where William Morris was married

Like swift Alice, indeed; the poem takes its title from “The Lobster Quadrille” by Oxonian Lewis Carroll. But

the speaker isn’t headed to the Oxford destinations most often associated with “the brainbox city” (Shuttle’s

choice of words is one of her chief delights) but to “The Physic Garden”—Britain’s oldest botanical garden—

where potent herbal remedies grow. The poem’s concluding lines affirm the healing power of “the help-yourself

of nature/who wears a green coat/not a white/don’t you agree?”

Born in Staines, Middlesex, on the western fringe of Greater London, in 1947, Shuttle is one of the most

prolific and widely discussed British poets of her generation. She started writing early, publishing a novella when

she was only 20. Her first poetic models were the British-born U.S. writer Denise Levertov and foreign poets

that she read in translation: Rilke, Akhmatova and Lorca. If Shuttle had any English forebears, they were

Traherne and Blake, not Wordsworth and Larkin.

At 23 she married Peter Redgrove, a former classmate of Ted Hughes at Cambridge who, at 39, had established

himself as a major voice in British poetry. The couple settled on the coast of Cornwall—the westernmost county

in England—where they spent 33 years living and working together, both producing poetry that began with a

keen awareness of the natural world and later incorporated ideas from Jungian psychology.

After Redgrove’s death in 2003, Shuttle wrote a series of poems about their relationship that appeared in her

2006 collection, Redgrove’s Wife, and the book wasshortlisted for two of the nation’s most prestigious poetry

awards: the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, novelist Gerard

Woodward described  her as “one of our most compellingly sensuous poets . . . Shuttle is a poet of immense reach,

both in the range of her subject matter and the breadth of her language. She is both an acute observer and an

inventive fiction-maker.”(Like many British poets, she has recorded a good number of her poems for the

country’s online Poetry Archive, making them available to a global audience.)

In this new book, Shuttle is just as likely to take us through the streets of London, Oxford, and Bristol as to the

Cornish coast. Perhaps solitude is less desirable as one gets older. Nonetheless, whether set among city crowds

or not, Shuttle’s latest work is intent on unraveling the real from the illusory in all kinds of circumstances:

wondering why the heart is still “no open book” after all these years (22); watching the spirits of hospital patients

struggle to free themselves from life, as surgeons try to keep them here (40); and warning herself about the

dangers of sinking too far into the past on a visit to her childhood town (41).

Her style has been pared down a bit—her lines tend to be shorter these days—but her poems are as playful and

emotionally direct as ever, despite the existential doubts that many of them raise. And, as the collection

progresses, there are moments when Shuttle’s  confidence in the power of incantation returns, as though it had

never been called into question. “O Blinde Augen” (the reference to “blind eyes” comes from Wagner’s Tristan

and Iseult) is addressed to Peter:

        My voice

        my voice alone

        will touch you

        from crown to heel . . .

        My voice will tend you

        like a child raised by wolves

        All this is true

        and now

        I will tell you one of my lies


        as I used to

        and you always understood (66)

But those moments of assurance coexist with others, many of them during sleepless nights, when “the world’s a

long way off/a radio too faint to hear” (54) and the line between wakefulness and dreaming is fluid. Then

untethered quiet can suddenly open onto other realities:

But sometimes

on a night like this

there’s so much silence in the silence

my childhood flings its arms around me

or runs me along a hallway

hung with swords and sabres

or I’m carrying the past somewhere

in a jeweled goblet filled to the Wagnerian brim

with blood-red wine

I mustn’t spill one drop

nor take one sip

till I’ve carried the goblet to safety

wherever that may be

and my dad dear dad can’t save me now

from all this waking and sleeping             can he? (78)

With this book, Shuttle has carried that goblet—full of the past’s recurring confusions and tentative redemptions

—into the light, bringing us the kind of poems that only a long life, deeply lived and bravely imagined, can yield.

Review by Frank Beck


Will You Walk a Little Faster? review by The Manhattan Review

Posted by The Manhattan Review, 16 June 2018


Will You Walk a Little Faster? review by The Poetry Society

Posted by The Poetry Society, 30 March 2018

“My life, I can’t fool you, / you know me too well” begins the speaker in the opening poem of Penelope Shuttle’s

latest collection, a book that takes its title from the entreaty at the heart of contemporary life. And if the world

around us seems always to be saying “hurry up”, then this book exhorts its readers to slow down from time to

time as well. So we have poems like ‘My Life’, quoted above, in which the speaker is in conversation with their

own life which has become a person with a deep insight into the speaker’s personality. Elsewhere this same

focus on gaining perspective is reflected in a number of poems looking back, we assume, to childhood:

My father

of the sleety air

my father of his silence

his sword of stardust

and ash

as years go by as if he’d never been

                        (‘My father promised me a sword’)

The wonders of childhood are here in words such as “stardust” and in the speaker’s viewpoint; the father is “of”

the air, a magical being drawn from the elements. That these wonders give way eventually is the poem’s main

propositional content but this poem is a good example of how Shuttle’s poems say things. The lineation favours

a fluid, improvisational rhythm over a more fixed pattern and there is a lot of space in Shuttle’s poems. This

serves to fix an image in the mind and complicate and qualify that image as the poem unfolds. So, even though

the end of the poem is expected and offers no new epiphany, the manner of getting there forces the reader to

be present as they read, following clause after clause until the full picture is clear. In the process of reading the

reader takes on the feeling of wonder that a child might have when trying to make sense of the adult world. This

lends Shuttle’s poems a liveliness that belies their focus on what is lost to time or the process of looking back

into a life. Indeed the presentation of these poems in this way adds an idiosyncratic aspect to what in the hands

of another poet might be a plainer, less nuanced, poem.

This fluid lineation is a hallmark of this book and contributes to an overall feeling that Shuttle is in perfect

control of her material even when the speakers falter:

and I’m getting closer

and closer

to you

despite what people tell me

is the otherwise

                       (‘I often think’)

but it can’t be done

this looking back

                       (‘Streets and their childhoods’)

Taken together these two passages are emblems of the book as a whole. On the one hand the impulse behind

the poems is to address mortality, to face the passage of time and set the contemporary moment in context,

and on the other hand there is a sense that looking back in order to do this might be a way of avoiding what is

happening now. It is difficult not to align the speaker in ‘I often think’ with Shuttle, since we know of the loss

to which she has returned often in her work, the death of her partner Peter Redgrove. Whether the speaker is or

isn’t the poet, what we know, outside of the poem, suggests that Shuttle has insight into what the poem contains.

Given this information the poem becomes an exploration of the ways in which the dead stay with us, how we

think of them and hold them in our bodies. This gives the words quoted in the passage above a dual resonance

as both an expression of grief and perhaps of relief, also. There is an intimacy to a word like “closer” which

for a moment takes us away from thoughts of mortality to dwell on what closeness means; the overlap of two

different people forming a unity. While there is a hardness to the sentiment expressed in the latter passage

quoted above, the book attempts what “can’t be done” all the same and it is this that is one of its most emphatic

statements: just because a thing cannot be done, that’s not to say there’s nothing interesting in the attempt.

The Poetry Society


Cornwall Contemporary Poetry Festival

Will be held in Falmouth, from Thursday 22

to Sunday 25 November 2018

Penelope Shuttle has made her home in Cornwall

since 1970 and the county’s mercurial weather and

rich history are continuing sources of inspiration.

About Penelope | Penelope Shuttle
Will You Walk a Little Faster? | Penelope Shuttle

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