Sympathetic Magic reviewed by Peter Day in Poetry Nottingham
(62/1, March 2008)
ISSN 1748-5878, Editorial Address 11 Orkney Close, Stenson Fields, Derby DE24 3LW.

Sympathetic Magic by Brian Fewster.
Poor Tom's Press, 89a Winchester Avenue, Leicester LE3 1AY, 6.

The reader of this collection travels with various forms of verse meeting themes of alienation and intimacy, love and loss, sickness and health, life and death. As on all journeys moods vary from resignation ('Treadmill'), disillusionment ('Sweet Charity') and sadness ('Come Back') as well as hints of hope and outright hilarity ('Anti-Sestina'). The journey need not be heavy going because the poems are insightful reflections on literature and life expressed in felicitous language and rhymes which are unforced and expressive. This collection shows that serious poetry can be clearly written and enjoyable.

In some of the poems, for example 'Two Voices' and 'Statues' the writer distances himse4lf and takes a cool view of the subject while in others, the poems about death and mourning for example, fluency breaks through our inhibitions. Then some poems, 'My 9:11' and 'Three Poems for Jane' may initially lead to a feeling of discomfort in a place between what is said and what it is difficult to say. There is a kind of detached grittiness about poems grounded in the everyday which give insights into the pragmatics of living and language. 'The Real World' is on voting behaviour: a candidate needs credibility for the strategic voter:

The candidate I will vote for
secretly believes as I do

but dares not say so
for fear of losing my vote.

Unlike you,
he and I live in the real world.
'Fatstock' has a jaunty rhythm and is about a serious subject – the farmer's investment in stock and their eventual fate in the abattoir. 'Time Please' is a sonnet which personifies death – Time is the cook who provides an infinite variety of dishes for the gingerbread man. In the oven he cries for more time to complete what is unfinished; death by cooking is what he gets:
Spread limbs protesting, mouth an open O
(the picture flawed, the puzzle incomplete,
the seed unspent, the work not finished yet)
he cries for time. And Time is what he'll get.
'Unfinished Business' begins with recollections of childhood bed time rituals which failed to tie up loose ends. The grown up is haunted by memories and uncertainty about death. In this and other poems mixed feelings and ambiguities are evoked through recollection of everyday activities and the pain of some farewells is evident. In 'Mother and Son' the rhyming stanzas fall away reaching a low print of sadness before 'base coinage' in the final stanza signals a wish for hope and re-assurance. Although it is often difficult to identify the tone of a poem and each reader or listener has a different response I found this lyric as moving as its predecessor and 'Come Back' which follows. It is in three parts, which achieve their full effect by being seen and read as a whole.

The conscious exploration of the unconscious mind is now a common preoccupation of lyric poetry. 'One Step at a Time' is one of the mysterious and paradoxical poems in this collection; others for example are "The Death of the Ogre' and `Ice Age'. Poems like these might lie thought to reward the psychoanalytical or Jungian critic. 'Talents' however provides the brisk riposte: 'Don't lift up stones to peer at what's beneath'. This injunction is supported by the simple idea that the poet himself writes about obscure subjects. But in the witty 'Advice to poets' we are recommended to:

Endure the analytic mind,
the ferret face more keen than kind
who'll subject to a third degree
the images in stanza three,
then deign at last to let you pass
certificated second class
and stamp his qualified consent –
obliterating what you meant.
'One Step at a Time' concerns a reclusive or alienated individual and refers to St. Jerome who died in 420 AD; who wrote "I had, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, cut myself off from home, parents, sister, relations and (hardest of all) from the dainty food to which I had become accustomed." He lived as a hermit in the desert for two and a half years but the solitary life was not really for him. In the penultimate stanza of the poem the recluse is still captive:
You turned your conscious mind away,
but some disturbance stirred there still.
A breasting wave blocked out your light.
A shadow paralysed your will.
'Bindweed' speaks of dreams and fairy tales: ultimately non-human life is unknowing and unknowable but "A glowing tapestry of white on green / proclaims the lords of life still rampant there" acknowledges D H Lawrence's celebration and respect for life and nature.

'Mask' describes the cover illustration of a funerary mask from Australia in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. It summons subliminal things and the poem's associations are supernatural and unsettling. The title poem 'Sympathetic Magic' is a heroic verse consisting of three stanzas of twelve lines each. The reader's attention is caught by the alliterative opening 'Conceive a clear enclosure where, alone...' Two mottoes are central to the poem and are repeated in the third stanza when the dream becomes more obsessive and threatens madness. They are: 'Simplicity and space. It's good to dream.' The poem is informed by magic and the reader enters a disorderly world and a parallel fantasy which may paradoxically be spacious but is far from simple.

The influence of figures from the past like Theophile Gautier, Hilaire Belloc, D.H. Lawrence, Homer and Milton is seen in this collection. Milton is being re-evaluated now. The parody of one of his well known sonnets 'How Soon has Time' is a reflection on the past and future by the poet in middle age. Milton saw humanity as potentially free though limited by personal traits, though the possibility of self-mastery and regeneration is always present. In the context of Fewster's sonnet it is important to recognise Milton's appeal to those who see life as a struggle whether with external pressures or with personal characteristics. At fifty nine the writer reflects on intellectual pride. His verse is reflective using precise, simple language: underneath his cool clarity there are notable depths of thought and feeling.

Perhaps it is appropriate to end this review with a quotation from 'Letter to a Crowded House'.

It's tough for me to take my own advice.
Admission to the Muse exacts a price.
Brian Fewster's poems are intellectually rigorous, well crafted and enjoyable. He is conscious of our literary heritage which he uses and develops. Insight and wistfulness is to be found in this collection presented by a poet who has a confident and distinctive voice.