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Review | A Perfect Mirror by Sarah Corbett

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In the increasingly urbanised world in which we live, as encapsulated by ‘The Commute’, the first poem in Sarah Corbett’s latest collection, A Perfect Mirror, it can be difficult to remember and make contact with the soothing properties of nature. This distance – both in real life and towards the start of this collection – can initially make it difficult to see the overall concept of A Perfect Mirror. However, by ‘The Garden’ (the fifth poem in the collection), it has become slowly evident that nature itself is, in Corbett’s view, ‘a perfect mirror’. This thesis binds the collection throughout the series of sometimes even pantheistic poems that it contains.

Corbett proves herself throughout these poetic depictions of nature to be a timeless and sensual writer. She is subtly sonnet-like in her portrayal of opposing concepts, pitting safety and surety against risk, the rural against the urban, the here versus the elsewhere, and the then versus the now. This creates a diversity that makes the collection lively and pleasant to read, with some poems, such as ‘Warming’, proving comfortingly cyclical. The constancy expressed in ‘Walking Home’ and ‘Moon Walk’ contributes to this soothing feeling.

This comfort is also achieved partly through Corbett’s conveyance of a sense of the numinous: in ‘Sylvia Plath’s House’, for example, nature is personified and continues to exist in the wake of Plath’s death – and, by extension, all of ours. Languorous sentences, spread over short lines with the dexterous use of enjambment, also contribute to this calming effect, expressing a theme of acceptance via delightful vignettes that express human kinship through natural imagery. Singular moments are focused upon in some poems, whereas in others, Corbett’s topic is nature’s vastness. In certain respects, as in ‘Swan Upping’, nature is held up as heavenly compared to us mere mortals. Wonderful half-rhymes also indicate nature’s subtle symmetry and support Corbett’s sensitive responses to current events – especially in the poem ‘Nest’, which as per the author’s notes, was triggered by Brexit.

This and other events are treated in Corbett’s collection as faits accomplis. Fate and inevitability are themes that invariably appear, particularly in the first ‘Praise Song’ and ‘View of a Badger on the Heights Road’. In the former – a prose poem – themes of loss illuminate the notion of human intervention in nature, with the badger’s cause of death in the latter poem also highlighting this aspect. But whenever Corbett presents harm done to nature by humans, or vice versa, it is most often treated as accidental, sad, serious, and yet matter-of-factly, as if to gently force our confrontation of it.

This paradox is equally inherent in the fact that the ‘perfect mirror’ – nature – is so often not perfect. ‘Swallow Hole’ is brutally beautiful in its presentation of this. ‘The Trap’ also acknowledges that nature can be harmful, and ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ strongly emphasises death as part of nature, and how we often find this horrific. This poem gives a feeling of death as senseless and remorseless, which is bound to sit uncomfortably with most people, given that on the whole, humans like logic, narrative, and a moral compass. Corbett brings to light these discomfiting truths by counterbalancing the idealism of the ‘perfect’ natural world; in the collection’s third ‘Praise Song’, she speaks of’ ‘hay ruined’ and ‘homes washed out’.

All of this lends a potentially ironic aspect to the collection’s title. ‘The Commute’ and ‘Twinned Sonnets’ are perceptive representations of two worlds colliding – suggesting, in fact, an imperfect mirror. We humans mirror nature imperfectly in ‘The Garden’, with Corbett portraying us as fantasists who warp our memories ‘in some way that fits the telling’, bringing us back to reality thanks to the suitably abrupt volta. ‘Getting Lost’ suggests that we are imperfect mirrors of our idols, and in a more fantastical bent, ‘The Unicorn’ shows the eponymous creature itself as an imperfect mirror of nature; a creation gone wrong.

The mirror is perhaps blurred via Corbett’s use of anthropomorphism, especially in ‘Counting the Pennies’, where Dad’s hand becomes ‘a fat-knuckled mammal’. Corbett therefore leads us to ask ourselves where the object stops and the reflection begins. Her thought-provoking creativity is perhaps best epitomised by the wonderful ‘Sestina for Rain’, which revives an undeservedly oft-forgotten poetic form, the concise ‘Relics’, and the frankly perfect ‘New Moon’, which ends the collection.

The title poem of the collection is also not without its charms, crystallising the notion of parents and children as ‘perfect mirrors’, which is a theme alluded to elsewhere in the collection. However, this poem ultimately feels fragmented and overly-laden structurally. This is one of the few examples in the collection that at times feels slightly forced: ‘The Commute’ suffers from occasionally clumsy rhymes (with the assonance deployed being far more effective), and this poem’s mention of the commuter newspaper Metro by name seems unnecessary (with the use of brand names in any work of fiction or poetry frequently serving only to limit the reader’s own visualisation). There are very occasional proofreading issues. But the biggest problem comes in the poems which attempt political commentary or metacritical humour. The ‘Praise Song’ for murdered MP Jo Cox is far less poetic than others in the collection and diverges from its overall purpose, lacking subtlety overall. While the majority of ‘The Frozen River’ does not suffer from this, its penultimate stanza doesn’t really fit with the tone of the collection, which is far more sincere.

The vastness of nature portrayed in this latter poem, however, does embody the importance of the collection. Corbett uses the different seasons and aspects of nature to show the return to the real world on recovering from anaesthesia in ‘Moths’ as being a return to what is right. She makes clear that different forms of perfection comprise the ‘perfect mirror’ – perhaps a reason for her choice of the indefinite article in the collection’s title. As reflected in the beautiful ‘Halfway Back’, nature can also be a ‘perfect mirror’ of a person and our memories of them. This diversity of reflections means that ultimately Corbett successfully presents nature as an entity that deserves perpetual exploration, with the idea posited in ‘The Meaning of Birds’ that we are perhaps not meant to fully understand it at all; it is ‘a question that never gets answered’. Corbett’s confrontations of nature thereby show us a glimpse of what the real world is and can be – even if, as we flick through our copies of Metro and hold coffee ‘like an offering’, we tend to lose sight of this.

Published by Liverpool University Press, 2018.

BY BIANCA PELLET

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