On the 21st December 2012, I waded through a flood to get to the West Kennet Long Barrow. Believed to have been built in 3650 BC, it is one of the largest and most impressive Neolithic chambered tombs in Britain. The roar of the odd early bird car belting along the A4 echoed up behind me as I plunged into the bloated Swallow Head Spring, testing the durability of my ancient wellies. Once I had reached the barrow, there were fellow commemorators on what was rumored to be our last day on Earth. Inside the sheltered, green barrow-belly, someone played the drums, slowly, methodically and in a way that took you back to when bodies would lay on the cold ledges, when we would worship our ancestors by whispering to their bones. There was a closeness to a time period we can only experience in little black text, through them museum cabinets, Time Team and in the voices of poets like Claire Trévien.
Claire Trévien traces the history in the landscape that we often neglect. A geography of language and space, Trévien lays before us landforms that are hidden in plain sight, re-creating this encounter with what is lost or generally unknown in her language. In 'Astéronymes' - a French word for 'a sequence of asterisks used to hide a name or password' - Trévien has an author puzzling over words that have been redacted, hidden and denied to the reader. She writes "the places you don’t k*** have been asteronymed. / The places that might or might not e*** have been asteronymed" (45), liberalizing the landscapes from human understanding and generating attention to the potentials of the page as a space for word play, performance and the innovation of forms. She reveals to us the "battle lines are covered in moss" (Arran Sequence, 28) and how "our wild ancestors didn't try to fit in" (Guidebook, 48), both exploring the past but also exposing our own satisfactions in modern technology, consumerism and the language of the internet. There are talismans throughout the poem that link to the familiar, often in a way of expressing something far older than the talismans themselves.
These talismans live among the poems, cropping up on pages where Trévien explores the mythic vibrancy and second-life of standing stones, the Scottish Island of Arran and items in an auction lot. There are scrabble bags, fake IDs, skyscrapers, footnotes, cars, pylons, 4G, BMI scales, contactless payments, bath bombs, postcards, faxes and a Fedex sitting between the geographic wonders and games Trévien plays, little reminders of how our modern ways of constant flux collide with those pillars that have remained still and continuous over centuries. A key example of this is in 'Cìr Mhór', which is a list of Lots "LOT 3190/a packet of rose seeds, mixed types, past expiry date" (65). If you turn to Notes at the back of the book, you will read that this poem was inspired by Alex Boyd's photograph of Cìr Mhór on the Isle of Arran, but also Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. These intimately personal artifacts explore a history we did not know, but we can compare with our own. Having recently lost a relative, I was surprised how much of a person lives on through their property, their forgotten 'To Do' lists and the fragments they leave behind.
Trévien includes indexes and editor's notes in her poetry, which I found enjoyably refreshing and intriguing. To me it exposes how we are constantly finding ways to manage out lives out of natural chaos. We enjoy compartmentalizing, even listing our memories on Instagram and Facebook so that they might not be left to wander, to get lost and become fragments of a past we cannot quite remember. We have been eroded away by our own need to stop time. There is a force in these poems that shines a light on the discomfort and discontent of modern society, particularly when subtly comparing it to a past world of much simpler and mythic traditions. All our myths are now apps. 'Azahara ', what appears to be Trévien's own edits on a fake Wikipedia page on the concubine Azahara, and 'The Museum of Author Corrections', where the poet has a conversation with a practical, logical form of herself, these explore our own personal inner dialogues and how easy it is to fake a person's life, to build lies in technology.
Despite this subtle warning, there is a beautiful, vibrant humor throughout Astéronymes. In'The Evening After' (13), there is a drunken mishap and 'Rollright Stones' highlights the hazards of tourist attractions, with men "stubbled, pocked, pickled - / and interrupt my poem" and generating new content despite their disruptive arrival. There is also a wonderful amount of word-play in this collection. In the Notes, Trévien describes how she used "a technique I've not found a name for, which involves taking a word, slicing it in two and placing it on either end of the line" (75), most obvious in 'Goatfell', where the mountain has been cut into four Go/at/fe/ll sections. Though it was not included in the note, I believe 'You' (20) was also created using technique, the word being 'shape': "shaken...grape/shifting...cape/shored...tape". In the 'King's Cave', there word 'cave' also appears but with a breather line to make the excavation of these words that little bit trickier. There are possibly more to find, you'll just have to buy the book to delve into this literary treasure hunt!
To conclude, I would like to focus on Trévien's museums, which run like a thread throughout the collection, binding her other thematic concerns together. Her faux-commemorative monoliths pay homage to water, author corrections, sleeping, waiting, shared meals, family portraits and bus stop queues, each one could be argued to examine things effected by human nature, the items of history we curate and control, rather than the wild places dotted around the collection that offer "fern tentacles" and "blooded logs". Each museum presents a connection, 'The Museum of Water' reflects on our connection with nature, while 'The Museum of Family Portraits' is a collage of Trévien's family history and their experiences, bringing to life some voices while denying others, examining how our own family lore can be retold in subjective mindsets. To me 'The Museum of Bus Stop Queues' discusses some keys aspects of human nature, how "almost all of their work/addresses the theme of retaliation", identifying our need to rebel, and "they are always look upstream" brings to light our weakness for never looking behind us and recalling our history, we only ever look forward.
Claire Trévien's work is truly beautiful, the collection's idiosyncrasies and inventiveness kept me intrigued, amused and hungry for more. I enjoyed her playfulness and also her subtle ways of bringing home serious messages about the human condition, both the good and the bad. I would like to return to this work in a different format so that I might continue to examine the wealth of themes within this small book, because it has so much more to offer than a review's worth of words.
You can find out more about this marvelous poet's work on her website www.clairetrevien.co.uk and you can follow her on Twitter!