What I like about Rebecca Watts is that she is a poet who just gets on with being a poet. She eschews social media, refusing to join in the 24/7 clamour for attention in which so many let themselves down so regularly; she rarely gives interviews; she chose not to respond (in public anyway) to the many and vitriolic critics of her article, which appeared in PN Review, ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’; and her poetry, most of all, does not go out of its way to draw attention to itself but with consummate wit and skill takes the reader on unexpected and often profound journeys. It’s surprising how much poetry doesn’t do this; but with Watts it was evident in her first collection The Met Office Advises Caution (Carcanet) and in Red Gloves (also Carcanet) she consolidates her style and develops her themes: nature, art, science, and the human intersection of all three.
At the forefront of these themes – or perhaps the theme that runs through them all – is Watts’ expression of feminism as a rejection of the dull and deadening conformities of marriage and child-bearing. The first poem of the collection, ‘Economics’, is an amusing reductionist description-in-numbers of all the rural reasons to turn down the offer of a move “to the city to be with you”: “five swans in formation”, “three horses in maroon jackets”, “a greenfinch and thirty-nine / cows” and so on, with the poem finishing “I’m telling you what I saw; you do the maths”. The Watts ‘speaker’ is fiercely independent; she not only gives husbands short shrift, she also has harsh words for friends (“lame word” – ‘Definitions’) and the irritating children of friends (“In the future…you…won’t recall the past in which I punched your daughter” – ‘Barbecues’) and her Bridget Jonesian dislike of smug newly-weds, young parents, and their offspring is one of many welcome bridges between this new work and The Met Office Advises Caution (as I’ll come back to later).
It is in the title poem that Watts’ unusually individualist-spirited brand of feminism makes itself most overtly felt: “The women are carrying the coffin. Under the fear / of slippage they make small steps. / We cannot say that they advance.” Here the dead weight of the ‘movement’ relies for any actual forward progression on the strength of the individual women carrying it. But these are fallible humans (“How awkward we are.”) who may or may not be up to the challenge, many will “go to ground” themselves, and still more will be “tugged / otherwards. Husbands and Children”, but advancing the cause, or at least holding up even the idea of a cause, is a matter of sheer, dogged, determination: “One [woman] is wearing red woollen gloves. She is pressing them / to the wicker as though without her hands’ small force / the entire construction would fold.” The intensity of the self-belief contained in that “small force” extends well beyond the confines of the poem and infuses much of the rest of the collection, where the speaker/poet finds herself by necessity on the outside of both the social institutions she refuses to accept and the natural and artistic worlds she observes. Watts the poet and/or her speaker must, it seems, be apart and alone – and this requires grim, quiet, determination. It is not necessarily clear that the woman in the “red woollen gloves” is intended to stand for the poet and her approach, but she certainly seems to stand for resolve in strange and unprecedented times (“Today is not a normal day”). And at the poem’s, indeed the collection’s, epicentre are those “red woollen gloves”, which themselves carry a mysterious and weighty symbolic burden in a way that can’t help but recall William Carlos Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow. The ‘red’ motif is a minor strand, but an important one that runs through a collection rich with whites, pinks, blacks, greens and yellows. Bodily red is picked up in the smeared blood of ‘Having Bled on a Library Book’ (“You’ll be inclined / to regret the body”), obliquely in the “breaching of skin” in ‘Admission’, and then as a more obvious sign of lust (albeit fading) in ‘The Desire Path’ (“The river curls / round on itself. Someone // has knotted a scraggy / red ribbon // to a stick.”); and all these references lead, like the red dotted line on a treasure map, to a poem towards the end of the collection (‘That Sort of Note’), where we read: “We need more inner red, my friend said. / Show us your inner red.”. Is this the red of courage? Or of anger? Or is there something more sinister and sexual going on? Either way, the speaker in this poem rather coyly has none of it: “Oh, but / my eyes are a hazel branch snapped in two / and my body’s a hollow the wind blows through / and the blood in my veins is Polar Sea blue”. The full, high-poetic rhyming and its unexpectedly anachronistic tone (is the title playing with an anagram?) leave us a little off-kilter but we are sure that the speaker’s ‘friend’ is wrong in accusing her of being in denial – the Watts speaker, whether it she is intended to be the poet herself or not, sees clearly, is denying nothing, and is in complete control.
The red of the gloves then, for me, remain somewhat mysterious, but perhaps the important thing is that the gloves are being worn at all. Red woollen gloves, at a funeral? How disrespectful! This stubborn pallbearer refuses to observe conventions, and in the end this is what makes her the strongest of the four. Sometimes, the secret to winning the fight is leaving your gloves on.
In many ways, Red Gloves is not a separate collection to The Met Office Advises Caution, but a continuation, a refinement, perhaps to some extent a restatement of the same work. Watts’ eye falls once again on Charles Darwin, but now also on Emily Dickinson (a homage to a hero of hers I suspect, as to Emmeline Pankhurst in the first book). She expands her earlier observations of and mediations on individual objects such as the Wordsworths’ tinder box to much fuller and more ambitious (and wonderfully successful) contemplations of music and faith in ‘Music in Four Parts’ and ‘Worship Not The Object But The Thing It Represents’. And she returns to some of her favourite animals, amongst which, for me, the birds of prey stand out: the Ted Hughes pastiche ‘Hawk-Eye’ of The Met Office’ (“My feet are golden. They catch me / anything”) is replaced by the more distinctly Wattsian ‘Glamour’ here (“Life isn’t glamorous // for the hawk employed to circle landfill”), and elsewhere ‘At the Sanctuary’ gives a nice spiritual twist to the classic Tennyson eagle: (“a Zen / Buddhist on a rock in a high place”). But my favourite ‘bridge’ between the two volumes is the delightful shift in focus and tone as the poet’s admiration in the first collection’s ‘Linda at Swanfield’ of a woman’s hanging portrait (“your framed presence was a welcome reprieve / from the wallpaper’s massive flowers”) turns to frustration with paintings of male grandees in the present volume’s ‘The Drawing Room’ (“Another lovely, dark-green, papered wall…has been spoiled by having to bear / portraits of gilded men.”). Such deliberate and careful contrariness is Watts all over, and it is, I think, unique in contemporary poetry.
Red Gloves is available from Carcanet, here.