The Poetry of “If You Sit Very Still” - Review by Graham Harthill
Book Review by Graham Harthill, 12th Dec 2012. Some years ago I read Gordon Burn’s book on the West killings, Happy Like Murderers. It was compelling, and hideous; it left a bad taste in the mouth, quite literally, such was its visceral horror. Reading Marian Partington’s book leaves the scent of a fresh wind blowing across your mind. How can the sensory imagination be so refreshed? How can one’s belief in life be thus revitalised? How can life come out of horror, a horror that is so much more intransigent than mere, blessed death?
The answer is both spiritual and artistic. Marian has not only given her life unto soul-work but has rendered the world a goodness through her making of a book. Lucy Partington was a poet and student of literature, and it is right that through an act of literature, literature as prayer no less, that her life and its gifts to us all be actualised and commemorated.
It was a poem, the medieval Pearl, a copy of which was in Lucy Partington’s bag when she was kidnapped by the Wests, that gave Marian the structure of this book; Pearl with its dream of reconciliation with unutterable loss, its vision of transcendence over death. Marian mirrors the dialogue between the grieving poet and the Pearl Maiden in her own deepening dialogue with the creative, life-affirming spirit of her sister. The book veers between narrative and direct address to Lucy, written in present tense: the Greeks have a word for this: apostrophe, a deeply instinctive and emotional ‘breaking away’ from the present or the actual, to bring a person vividly back to imaginary life. This can be seen as a vital process in confronting the reality of loss and to make amends with the dead. And it is with Lucy’s own poetry, alongside that of George Herbert, the I-Ching, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and others, that the book is studded, jewelled; poetry set like beads in a rosary. Not only has Marian written a profound testimony of personal experience but has produced a work for spiritual use. There is nothing up for literary debate here; this act of testimony is a gift to the culture.
As a poet, and a prison worker, I am with Marian in wanting to see the truth revealed; therefore I use the word ‘culture’ advisedly; it isn’t merely art, the football pitch, the tabloids and TV (the ‘pain vultures’); it is our entire bit of the world, our emotional and intelligent place, the means by which we relate to one another. At the heart of Marian’s work is the awareness that pain brings pain, that punishment imprisons healing, that secrets and concealments haunt our world more gravely than the dead.
Poetry, like the living presence of Lucy herself, is a pearl of great price: it comes in dreams – astonishing dreams! – and in memories – the author’s engagement with which is her slow revelation and realisation. And it comes in stories and images – the pond, the skeleton, the owl, the woven bag. Only through story and metaphor can the experience of our own lives, and the lives of others, even killers, be apprehended. And, as through the teachings of Buddhism or Christianity, in words we can be carried towards enlightenment, which is why this book was written.