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Of mutability by Jo Shapcott (Faber and Faber, 2010)

Jo Shapcott's Costa Book of the Year "Of mutability" was the subject of our Poetry Library Book Club in May 2011.  On awarding Shapcott the £35,000 Costa prize, one of the judges said of the collection "These strong poems are rooted in the poet's experience of breast cancer but are all about life, hope and play".  We could tell how strongly attendees of the Book Club responded to the book, sharing their thoughts on the first poem we looked before we got a chance to ask our prepared questions.

In the book's acknowledgements, Shapcott says that "The artist Helen Chadwick is the presiding spirit of this collection" and we had catalogues on hand of Chadwick's artwork, borrowed from the Hayward Library, so we could look at the artworks that poems directly referred to such as 'Piss Flowers'.  The art critic Louisa Buck has described how Chadwick "revelled in fusing a mass of unconventional materials and drawing on sources that range across myth, science and anatomy - in order to express and celebrate a world of flux, fluidity and possibility" ("Independent") which could be a description of Shapcott's writing in "Of mutability".

Our discussion started with an overview of the book which begins with a series of what Sean O'Brien has described as "six, teeming, disquieted sonnets" about the physical body ("Poetry review" Spring 2011).  There are a series of poems about London but also music.  The poem "Somewhat unravelled" comes roughly in the middle of the book and could be seen as the book's central poem.  There is a sequence of tree poems and other poems about landscape, nature and animals, but these poems are often about something you might not expect at the same time.  The final three poems "take survival and the here and now as an opportunity to be seized" (O'Brien "Poetry review").

Recurring motifs are cells, hair, tea and sleep.  There are poems about creativity, poems after Rilke and Pushkin, and poems which ask us to take on a different identity (for example we're invited to become a bird "reader you're an owl" and another poem invites us to consume a tree!).  The book really is "fizzing with variety" to quote the Costa Prize judges again.

During the evening we looked closely at the following five poems and our discussion included some of the following questions:

Of mutability
This poem is influenced by a sonnet by Shelley "Mutability" which concludes "Nought may endure but Mutability" and a work of art by Helen Chadwick "Of Mutability".
How do you feel about the movement from "my" at the beginning of the poem into "you", being told that "your feet / mistrust the pavement" and "your blood tests turn the doctor's expression grave"?
What do you think of the list of things Shapcott says we should be noticing and doing in the second stanza?  Is it a positive list or negative?  Do you find it unsettling?

Abishag (after Rilke)
Before reading the Shpacott poem we heard the Rilke poem in translation, the original of which found in his "Neue Gedichte".  Abishag was a beautiful young woman who was a servant of King David and one of her duties was to keep the old king warm at night, without, however, their relationship being sexual.  Rilke's poem tells the story from King David's point of view, but Jo Shapcott has here given us the voice of the young woman.
Abishag doesn't seem to be repelled in any way by the old king's physicality.  Is it a voice you can believe in?
What do you think of poets creating their own versions of existing poems? What is the motivation and what does it add?

Somewhat unravelled
The auntie in the poem disparages poetry and fancy language but both she and the narrator use quite fanciful imagery in the poem. What effect does this have on the characters and the reader? What does it convey? What do you think the poem says about the power of language and creative expression?
At the beginning of the poem illness seems to be a lot about lack of control. Do people feel a sense of regaining control over their lives in the poem? What is the poem showing us we can do to feel in control?

This poem was commissioned for the anthology "Signs and humours : the poetry of medicine" and was written following discussions with Neurophysiologist Dr Mark Lythgoe on latent inhibition, the ability we have to filter out irrelevant stimuli.
What do you think of the mix of mundane detail in the poem ("my fingers smelled of garlic") and the monumental ("eternity trembled")?  Does it all seem equally important?
Do you like the made up word "hurricanoes"?

Piss flower
This poem is inspired by a work by the artist Helen Chadwick.  Do you think it stands on its own without knowing what the art work is about?
Why do you think Jo Shapcott has chosen this as the last poem in the book?

General concluding questions about the collection:

Sean O'Brien has described Shapcott as "a law unto herself" ("Poetry review", Spring 2011).  Do these poems seem very different to other poems/poets you've read?
Kate Kellaway in a review of the book said that "Emotion is tightly controlled in these poems.  She often seems adjacent to herself, as if brooding over a puzzling stranger" (Observer).  Do you get this impression?  Do you mind that Shapcott doesn't explicitly mention her breast cancer?
What is this book saying about change, about illness?  Are the poems fearful, celebratory? ("I guess 'mutability' is the right word for it all. It's rather a wonderful word. I like it because there's no value judgment in it: it suggests that change is glinting and gleaming, whichever way it's going. I think that's what I feel, too." - Jo Shapcott "Guardian")
Would you recommend this book to someone who was ill or going through a difficult time in their life?

This book was a real hit with some attendees of the Book Club who said that they would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, no matter what state their health was in.

Other books in the Poetry Library collection on illness and change include:

Apology for absence / DARLING, JULIA. -- Todmorden : Arc Publications, 2004. (Book) Adult collection

After shocks : the poetry of recovery for life-shattering events / edited by Tom Lombardo -- Atlanta, Ga. : Sante Lucia Books, 2008. (Book) Adult anthology

Articulations: the body and illness in poetry / edited by John Mukand -- Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Becoming / SCHNEIDER, MYRA. -- London : Second Light Publications, 2007. (Book) Adult collection

The gift: new writing for the NHS / edited by David Morley-- Exeter : Stride, 2002. (Book) Adult anthology

A hospital odyssey / LEWIS, GWYNETH. -- Tarset : Bloodaxe Books, 2010. (Book) Adult collection

The poetry cure / edited by Julia Darling and Cynthia Fuller -- Tarset, Northumberland : Bloodaxe Books, 2005. (Book) Adult anthology

Signs and humours : the poetry of medicine / edited by Lavinia Greenlaw -- London : Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2007.

Books in the Poetry Library collection where a poet has been inspired by the work of a particular artist include:

Beckmann variations & other poems / HELLER, MICHAEL. -- Exeter : Shearsman Books, 2010. (Book) Adult collection - Includes poems after the artist Max Beckman.

Beneath the rime / TROUP, SIRIOL. -- Exeter : Shearsman Books, 2009. (Book) Adult collection - Includes a series of poems after paintings by Velázquez.

The city with horns / YOSELOFF, TAMAR. -- London : Salt Publishing, 2011. (Book) Adult collection - Includes a series of poems about the artist Jackson Pollock.

What the water gave me : poems after Frida Kahlo / PETIT, PASCALE. -- Bridgend : Seren, 2010. (Book) Adult collection.

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