There is a short poem towards the middle of Clarissa Aykroyd’s debut pamphlet Island of Towers which is called ‘Lighthouse’ and in which an island and its lighthouse are metaphors for a person sighing and sobbing in their sleep. In three brief couplets (the third separated from the first two by a couplet-sized blank space, perhaps indicating the eclipse between flashes from the lighthouse) we get a powerful impression that the sleeper is lost in their own darkness, one more profound than the dark of night or sleep. “Morning hasn’t come” we are told, as though it should be here by now but has failed to arrive. Whatever this sleeper’s darkness is, it remains despite the fact that “the lighthouse lifts so high, (and) the island / streams with light”.
This image of an island with a tower sending its searching light out into the unknown is not only towards the centre of the collection in terms of sequencing; it feels, in fact, as though each poem exists while briefly lit by some central illuminating force (the reader’s eyes? the poet’s pen?) before disappearing back into the mystery of the unknown. That is not to say that the poems are unmemorable, the opposite is true and some of the images are wonderfully startling, such as the “green-eyed cat /…crossing no-man’s land to me/delicately carrying a fish.” (“Leningrad Spy Story”), but that there is much in Island of Towers to imply a search for some kind of light (I read this, in line with the lighthouse metaphor, as the reflected light of the poet’s ruminations – I don’t find anything to imply that it is the Light of religion; the searched-for light seems more likely to stand for ‘tranquillity’ if not quite ‘understanding’). With each poem failing to reflect the desired light, the poet moves on to the next, until the final two poems ‘Stained Glass’ and ‘Wicklow Mountains After Rain’, which both shine vividly, glaringly almost, with “white gold light” and “brushstrokes of gold”. But there is, it seems, no revelatory sense of ‘seeing the light’ because even in these final poems the light is either illusory (“this is fire that lulls to sleep”) or overwhelming (“I tried to grasp it, ran out but lost it”). Light is also blinding (“light blinds dark in fathoms” – ‘An Eye, Open’) and possibly damaging, like a stain on the retina (“And this is leaving, carrying the flash/behind my eyes, into the dark outside.” – ‘Dakar’). And so ultimately, a sense of mystery remains. It may be that the short sequence of Sherlock Holmes poems (and I happen to know that Aykroyd is an enthusiastic Holmesian) are a nod towards the sense of joy and adventure inherent in trying to solve a possibly unsolvable mystery.
I said above that each poem fails to reflect the desired light, but this is not a failing of the poems as much as the effect of each one being part of an ongoing journey (and perhaps a circular one, as in the sad and dizzying ‘Carousel’). Indeed, almost all of the poems are inspired by, named after, or contain references to specific locations around the world but this could not be described as a Poetry of Place because the places described are shrouded in darkness, internalised as ‘dream-worlds’, or expressed in terms of the ‘not-quite-arrived’ or the ‘just-leaving’ (“island to island, stone to stone” – Night on Cook Street’) – and usually all of these at the same time. Looked at from one angle, the titular “island of towers” is Cairo (from the poem of that name), but it could equally stand for any of the cities, ancient and modern, that this pamphlet ‘visits’. It does not take too great a leap of imagination to see the buildings of a city as an island rising out of the surrounding flatness, and every city sends out its own light streaming into the darkness – both actual electric light and the metaphorical light of life and culture. But in a sense, and more interesting to me, every poem in the pamphlet is a little island in itself, each with its own faint source of light, and the poet/reader becomes like the ‘he’ of the first poem, ‘As though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul’ (presumably the poem’s dedicatee Ivo Machado), who “…had to fly into the storm because there was nothing but storm”, but who still found and expressed a sense of positivity for the future in all the darkness and despair, “small hopes, each a distant light” – these distant lights are stars, island towers, and poems.
To conclude this brief review, Island of Towers is a pamphlet which finds space, in its twenty-three short poems, to mystify and beguile with the beautiful surrealism of an “invisible rainforest” in a London Underground station where “a girl in a long black dress / has one hand uplifted” and on her finger a jewel, or “a ladybird/…stars her finger” while “Her green eyes bloom like gardens” (‘Northern Line’), and elsewhere to guide the reader, through exquisite word-choice over just seven lines, towards the life, work and tragic suicide of Paul Celan, in a poem which unostentatiously displays a profound connection with Celan and ends with the unforgettable image of an “…impossible bone spur on my heart” (‘In Paris’).
But I would recommend this pamphlet above all, in these months during which we are overwhelmed by COVID-19, for the distant lights it provides, the small hopes.
Island of Towers is available from Broken Sleep Books, here.
Clarissa Aykroyd blogs on various poetry matters, here, at The Stone and the Star.
Disclosure: I know the poet a little through Twitter and we have found that we agree on a number of poetry-related issues. If this affects any of the above review, I am unaware of it.