At Durham Book Festival Phoebe Power and Katrina Porteous read their fascinating poetry about the Durham Heritage Coast, relating new poetic tales around the enchanting place and at the same time raising awareness about the heavy pollution the landscape has suffered. Phoebe Power very effectively contrasted prose and verse in her poetry, alternating rhythmic poems with little vignettes of life, containing encounters and close observations. Power’s gift is how close she draws the reader into the experience. And this is what makes her collection Shrines of Upper Austria so memorable an experience to read.
The collection begins with the poem ‘sex and love with the soon-to-be accountant’, which is cleverly divided into the sub-sections ‘Reflections: to rely on in his new job’ and ‘Weapons: with which she threatens him.’ While there are no rhymes, Power juggles rhythmic combinations of words to produce associations in the readers mind of the accountant’s daily routine and of an elusive lover. Subtle irony runs through Power’s matter-of-fact observations, which are shaken up through her elliptic style.
Power’s collection is especially gripping in those poems and vignettes which contain social issues and close observations of how Austrian culture deals with them. Descriptions of Austrian landscape consistently connect the issues as well as the reader to the place they are set in. ‘Austrian Murder Case’ links the coldness of the surrounding snow and ice with that of facades a relationship and calculated crime, dead bodies and sculpting. ‘Isis and Marija’ devotes the reader’s attention to the clash of cultures immigrant children grow up in and how they reconcile it. The friendship of the two girls, one with Colombian family, one with Croatian family, is endearingly depicted through Marija’s own words, while Isis is described in simple verse which distinguishes her clearly from the others – in a good way. We forget how easy it is for children to be accepting, how natural. In simply observing, Power makes a strong case for tolerance and inter-cultural understanding, not least when she incorporates German phrases in her poetry.
‘Schloss Cumberland’ connects the two cultures Power is juxtaposing with ease through language. The German words naturally flow in the rhythm of her Enligh verse:
‘there’s one bit that’s old
curly locks on the door
white roses im Garten.’
Another concise picture Power draws in the readers head. The juxtaposition has a more ironic tone at times as well, when an entire line is made up of ‘Landespflege und Betreuungszentrum.’ I am not Austrian, but German, and even I have to smile. Naturally, the collection also contains a witty poetic comment on Brexit: ‘In and Out of Europe.’ By simply relating swimming in Austria on polling day and a German immigrant background (‘In 1946, my grandmother came/ to Britain and spoke kein deutsch/ to her children), a very strong political statement emerges – without the mentioning of sides, but only with multinational everyday life as a matter of course.
Surprisingly direct, but not less effective are ‘notes on climate change.’ Again Power describes the influence of this issue on the level of simple day-to-day life of individuals, such a John who buys a second-hand car to run around in, or a 17-year-old boy who want to teach skiing and asks in German when it will be proper winter again.
Power’s poetry, her vignettes and verse, sets up shrines to everyday life and takes the reader on a journey much like a photo album with the bigger picture in mind. Her poems are a diverse, relatable, astonishingly realistic and grippingly political. I can only recommend Shrines of Upper Austria, mit besten Empfehlungen!