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The Observances review – a collaboration with the waves

Kate Miller’s brilliant debut is so steeped in the sea, it’s almost as if the ocean were co-author of these calm, elegant pieces

In The Observances, Kate Miller elevates the art of looking into something that is, if not strictly religious, devotional. This is a brilliant debut. Some of her poems resemble “found” art – her eye alights on what the less watchful would miss, she makes sense of the accidental, connects the arbitrary, creates form. In Regarding a Cloud, the first poem in the collection, she spots a “picknicker’s spoon with no handle”, which is “exposed/ by a scalping of growth/ and it’s upside down,/ mortared in mud”. The spoon becomes a mirror, the poem a reclamation. The troubling No Place, about a homeless child, is another “found” piece. And in At the Dew Pond, West Dale, she spies a “tiny snake” in the “cool puree of a pond”. More splendidly intentional is And Now You, about a baby’s arrival in the world. Whatever the subject, looking takes time. This is reflected in the calm elegance of these pieces.

Miller is painterly too (she studied art history at Cambridge before becoming an English lecturer at Goldsmiths). There is a virtuoso poem inspired by a Turner sketchbook, Colour Beginnings, in which she imagines the painter witnessing the burning of the Houses of Parliament, her words a wild impasto. In Lines to Convey Distance, she summons a less fiery palette: “Send me one hundred greys to catch the chill and whip of water.” The sea is almost her co-author, whipping at the book’s edges. But what I admire most is that the writing is sensuous without ever being slipshod. There is no luxurious surrender. Hers is an alert, defended gaze.

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