The delicately-drawn 'memoir' of a marionette carries complex allegorical resonance
This week's poem, "Puppet," is by Gillian Allnutt, winner of the Northern Rock Foundation Writers' award in 2005. It was first published in her 2004 collection, Sojourner, and is re-printed in How the Bicycle Shone: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe).
Born in London in 1949, a period when the second world war's shadows still lingered heavily, Allnutt writes from a strongly personal sense of history. Sometimes described as a "spiritual" poet, she belongs to the contemplative tradition, and she is scholarly and deft in handling religious subject-matter. But her poems love the world, too. They have a lapidary quality, and are brightly dotted with the names, places, small scenes and treasured objects of everyday life.
In this week's poem, the Puppet is one of those significant objects. He tells his own story, a little autobiography beginning with an expression of humility and collectivism: "There are many like me." This is perhaps already a cue to imagine vaster populations, displaced by war or political cataclysm. This Puppet is an enigmatic symbol – but his puppet-presence is lightly and beautifully sketched in.
The language is simple and deliberately repetitive, as in a fairytale. The story accumulates from separate statements that reflect the jointed, discrete movements of a marionette. He belongs to another time, "a world of wood and old wives' tales", and to another place, as the reference to the name of his maker, Vaclav, tells us. His memories of Czechoslovakia seem to be pre-war. The voice, with its series of vivid but increasingly uncertain memories, is that of exile.
Traditionally, the Czech marionette was made with one hand closed and one hand open, so it could hold an object such as a flower or a sword. This one evidently held a sword. We're not told what he represented – a pirate or sailor, perhaps, as the sword was lost "at sea". Presumably, this was a theatrical puppet, and the sea an imaginary one. A cheerful, riverside Sunday show came to an end. The narrative grows more elusive, as if the puppet had become foggy about the distinction between reality and fantasy. Perhaps there was a real voyage, in which he travelled into emigration with his owner and his theatrical family?
There's an additional fairytale element when he recalls that Vaclav's "middle daughter made me with her milk and silver needle". This has the flavour of magic. Vaclav's daughter may be an ordinary young woman, dressing the bare wooden puppets to make a living, a baby at her breast. But the puppet clearly feels that something tender and magical, in addition to the "several knives", has gone into his creation.
"I was laid aside, like Czechoslovakia" contains a powerful comparison, all the more chilling for the understatement of "laid aside". No doubt it recalls the Munich betrayal. Perhaps it also hints at the gentler events of the 1990s, when Czechoslovakia was dissolved into two separate states.
The poem is arranged in a characteristic manner, one which Allnutt increasingly adopts in her later work. The unit of the sentence becomes the stanza. This lets the lines breathe, and slows the reader so that sound and nuance are more intensely registered. Delicate alliterative effects and cross-rhymes occur throughout the poem, but the strongest come in the final stanza. Additional internal rhymes (sea/me, rotted/knotted) here suggest the anguished tangle of the strings. They're silk (another fantasy?) but the adjectives – red, raw, rotted – suggest flesh or tendons, exposed and painful. The puppet, made "to hold only the strings that hold me", is immobilised now by the threads that once allowed him to move.
How the Bicycle Shone is a remarkably cohesive volume, showing how faithful Allnutt has remained to her imaginative sources. The poems often interrelate, even across decades, and much of the collection is best read as an extended sequence. "Puppet" stands by itself, but, to fully savour the craft of one of the most trustworthy poets currently writing, you need to read the book.
There are many like me.
I was made in a world of wood and old wives' tales.
I was made, with rings in my head and heels, to hold only
the strings that hold me.
Vaclav made me with his several knives.
His middle daughter made me with her milk and silver needle.
I lost my sword at sea when the captain ran off with me
in the play
and Sundays by the Vltava.
I was laid aside, like Czechoslovakia.
My strings were made of raw silk, red, and rotted
at sea and knotted themselves around me.