by Lewis Buxton
Despite being called A Book of Fragments and Dreams, the poems in Rebecca McManus’ collection are far from fragmentary. They speak loudly to one another and are rooted decisively in the people, places, and objects of her life. Unthank Cameo has released this collection posthumously after Rebecca McManus was killed by a speeding driver whilst waiting at a bus stop. She was 21 and just weeks away from graduating from the University of East Anglia.
It difficult to know where to start with A Book of Fragments and Dreams because the passing of time – beginnings, endings, time of day and night, and most notably the progression of calendar years – are what a lot of these poems are concerned with. In one of the untitled poems of the collection, McManus tracks the movement of a year:
‘O, for this long and weary March to be over!
A month so dreary that we invent holidays to
I like this playful, wry voice that appears in many of the poems. It made me smile and snort in that way you sometimes do when you notice the aptness of something, or the way a poem reflects a thought you’d never known how to articulate. McManus ends this poem,
‘Give me the fresh April. Give me free July.
Give me the creeping September, give me back January!’
Who begs for January? McManus does. In the imperatives of the last quotation we hear the determined and wilful voice that drives the collection. This voice loves, dreams and worries like the rest of us, but in how they craft and question the world, McManus’ poems are unflinching. She never claims to have the right answers, but she asks all the good questions. Questions about, as I’ve mentioned, the passing of time:
‘The calendar tells me that
………Midsummer Day is
next Thursday; I tell myself that that it is tonight. Who can put a
………date on Midsummer?’
She never claims to have the right answers, but she asks all the good questions.
Sometimes she asks about the choices we make, and the questions are backed up by the heft of her metaphor:
‘Swans can’t fly.
Given the chance would you exchange beauty for wings?’
Other times she speaks directly to human nature, to the strange and self-destructive ways in which we think:
‘Why do you torture yourself with things
that will not happen?’
The ability to question like this unveils McManus as an excellent observer of things. The poems in this book, whilst they are interested in large concepts like love and time and nature, paper-weight themselves to the page with the objects that interested McManus. The packed lunch and the roll up, the abandoned wallet and phone, the old bus tickets – they all serve as metaphors for the things we value and then we leave behind. In addition, McManus has a lovely way of observing herself, as we see in poems like Observe, You Will Find Hope
‘Go looking for answers
………….in absurd places
………………………..and you will find
So look in normal places, and find normal things.’
These lines speak to an awareness of the poetry she is writing. The moments where McManus acknowledges the poem are deft, funny, and importantly do not impede the emotion of the poem – if anything these moments heighten it. Take the poem One Night Stand full of pained metaphors, lost innocence and white dresses, which ends knowingly with the word:
or in the poem Still where she ends
‘I have nothing to write about except food and silence.
I fear I’ll always be too young to say anything significant,
and I’ll always be here,
like the stagnant lake.’
The ability to question like this unveils McManus as an excellent observer of things.
I went to university with Rebecca, so I find it hard to read these poems and not think of the same lake that I stood by, where I pondered thoughts like this, and wrote poems not even half as good as these. But it’s not because we shared that brutalist concrete and stagnant lake for three years that these poems speak to me. They speak to me because they touch on the ‘aloneness’ we all feel sometimes. Not loneliness. I don’t think that’s what comes through, but lots of things in the poems are alone. A moon hangs ‘like a forgotten Christmas/ decoration’; a speaker is hazily in love, alone on the Number 9 bus home; some poems are only two short lines, alone in the white space of the page. Perhaps this is a poet suggesting why she is writing, taking those moments of being alone and using the poem as a space to share that ‘aloneness’ with others. As in A Romance, Part 2 [Cromer],
‘You and I, on the seafront, on the edge of England
We are the only people here’
I return to Rebecca McManus being an astute observer of things, people and herself. As she says in another untitled poem,
‘to give myself a defining feature I wear a beret.’
It was red and she wore it to seminars, in the bar and the times we drunkenly crossed paths in our sticky-floored student union. Judging by the rest of the poem I know she wrote ‘defining feature’ with her tongue rammed firmly in her cheek. Having spent time with Rebecca, spoken to the people who were close with her, and now having read the extraordinary A Book of Fragments and Dreams, it was not her beret that defined her. It was the astuteness of her poetry, the dry humour of her voice, the scarlet brightness – not of her hat, but of the mind beneath it.
New Writing are hosting UEA Live – In Memory of Rebecca McManus, which will also mark the launch of A Book of Fragments and Dreams. [23rd March, Writers Centre Norwich, Dragon Hall. Doors open at 6.30pm. Free entry.]
Featured image: jacket crop / artwork The Archer (1879) by Elisabeth Sonrel