Gaia Holmes is an expert in her field, and this is obvious in her skilled, careful and beautifully strange poetry collection.
In Where the Road Runs Out the reader is gently pulled through the experience of loss as if watching someone else’s dream. There is a fogginess to the collection in which one can never quite pinpoint what is real and what is not, until, with the deft skill of a craftsperson, Holmes takes the reader’s hand, through the fog, to feel the undoubtable bones of the reality that is loss.
There is a repetitive feeling of being with ghosts or possessing other forms. These are often physical embodiments, as if the narrator is shape-shifting through numerous physical apparitions to find the right fit for that particular moment. The poems are never far from the earth and the cold, though this is not described in terms of hardship or survival, but with reference to existence within that state. The rules of physics are broken here, the veil between worlds becomes thinner, and we are able to cross between thought and reality so that simile becomes metaphor, then a literal embodiment of a dream-state, briefly, before we are jolted awake, back to the real world.
In Mushroom Gatherer the reader is led through the safety of recognisable images:
This man could strike a flame
on a damp matchbox…
before being pulled into the dark, dream-state which exists beneath:
I felt my poems
rotting in my throat
This is a recurring action throughout the collection. It works like an animation, or one of those eerie Victorian animated toys with delicate cogs and levers, drawing the reader through and presenting to them a selection of situations and images that are both beautiful and frightening.
Anyone who has lost someone they loved will know that, for a time, one inhabits a different world to those around them. I recognised this in Holmes’s collection; the merging of worlds while examining the distance between them. This clever perspective is partly achieved by the narrator reverting to a childlike point of view in which facts are not based on the literal, and actions such as lighting fires with the touch of one’s hands is entirely plausible and unquestioned.
Holmes’s craft as a writer is most apparent when writing about the loss of her father. In Reporting Back, the narrator’s dead father is present in human form:
He’s still not much of a conversationalist
and yet he is also:
levitating above a fountain
and it is in Holmes’s astute and brilliant use of imagery that these two instances of presence are melded:
..to bring me something celestial
to put in one of my poems –
an angel’s feather in a Jiffy bag,
a clutch of notes plucked from a lyre,
a zephyr in a marmite jar.
A personality brought into being and a universal acknowledgement of what is loss are both here. I felt that the narrator was always slightly distanced from the subject, even when being possessed by the subject, and I wondered what would happen if she lost the control of observation completely. But this is not a criticism, there is nothing to criticise here.
Gaia Holmes was born in the Calder Valley in what might be considered the forge from which the Northern poets have emerged. She has earned a deserving place in that canon.
By Wendy Pratt, Poetry Correspondent