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The Shape of a Forest…

Extract review of Jemma L King’s ‘The Shape of a Forest’ published by Parthian Books. The review features in the launch issue of Bare Fiction Magazine, published December 2013.

The Shape of a Forest by Jemma L King

Helen Calcutt

‘I’ll trickle upwards in silver flame
the autumn-broken leaves’

Letters to Judges Altham and Bromley from Elizabeth Devise’s Familiar, 2013 

These lines by Jemma L King were the first I read of The Shape of a Forest. Her debut, published by Parthian, and shortlisted for this years’ Dylan Thomas Prize, is a collection of great linguistic simplicity, and ornate strength – ideas captured deftly here in this extract. This book affirms King’s place in the literary world. Though one of many, The Shape…

stands alone, and certainly demands our attention.

On reading the title I suspected the poems of this collection might only be appreciated from a distance. Not so, dear reader. The writing does unfold: but as well as being isolate, dark, and somewhat ambiguous it also grabs you with a kind of breathy intimacy sustained only by the finest of writers. At times Kings’ work is perhaps too reminiscent of Sylvia Plath. But
I find this oddly comforting, and a nod in the right direction. Most of the time the stature of the work is entirely its own, and from the first page to the last, I fell in love with her ability to shape language. To gift the branches and shadows of the lines a permanent voice.

If I were to use one word to sum up this collection, it would be inspiring. It can, in the right place and at the right time feel like a Poet’s Dictionary. Similarly to Ted Hughes, King writes with great simplicity – but the ordering of the words and indeed, the words she chooses can make for next-to groundbreaking imagery:

‘Shaman stamped the ground,
March sun seared his eyes
already doloured sightless.
He ripped from the grass
each broken green neck…’

The Birth of Shaman’s Daughter, 2013

King isn’t afraid of words that bite. She embraces and examines their granite potential, re-works their pattern of structure and then, masters their ability to attack from the page. Every poem here is like a different part of a forest, both in their technical shaping and content.King has a great feel for the line – her use of enjambment is at times exquisite. I love her
pauses; the in-breath and out-breath of the phrases and the spaces around them make you read as if reading were necessary to live. Her work is nothing like E.E. Cummings, but at times I’m reminded of him. There’s a natural tension between the cut of the lines, and the gaps between. They bear a similar intensity to poems such as ‘Spring is like a perhaps hand’ or ‘In The Rain’ 

I wasn’t surprised to discover that King is also an academic. So much of her writing plays to a backdrop of myth, history, politics, and ecological and social awareness. Sometimes, to my eye and ear, her poems are too final – too complete. ‘Winter for the Robin’ is a beautifully written work but offers too much of an “explanation” – that is to say, the sparing generosity of the language, that in its hoary coarseness sheds light on the integral workings a poem’s frame, is painted over: coloured up and unfortunately the feeling that builds over the first three verses is diluted. Towards the end I’m left with sense that both I and the poet have gone too far. The forest is clear. There are sign posts pointing right and left. There’s nowhere undiscovered left to tread.

You can read the full article by ordering a copy of Bare Fiction here, including further reviews and writings in poetry, fiction and theatre writing. 

Jemma L King’s website

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