Of Mutability, By Jo Shapcott

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The Independent Culture

Change is a staple of poetry down the ages, so the title of the quietly powerful new book by Jo Shapcott (below) echoes the writing of numerous poets. But it also acknowledges a 1986 exhibition by the artist Helen Chadwick, whose work focuses, like Shapcott's, on the body. Her pieces have inspired several quirky poems in Of Mutability.

Shapcott's poetry has always unsteadied the reader, and here it deals with the insidiousness of illness and looming mortality, without the loss of a characteristic playfulness. Sombre but not gloomy, the book is bound by motifs of liquid and permeability: a pavement ripples underfoot, a speaker's body is a drop of water, and an old man's skin is "so thin it might melt". Somewhere behind this, the word "liquidate" hangs.

In the 12 years since Shapcott last published a book of original poems, she has undergone treatment for cancer. Others would have used the experience directly, but Shapcott has never been an overtly autobiographical poet, even if a couple of references to specific dates early in the book suggest otherwise.

Nevertheless, her illness supplies the book's emotional weather, even in a series of poems about trees and the recurring image of people looking skyward, which emphasises human smallness. Head thrown back, "I'm hoping, mainly, to stay present," the speaker of "Stargazer" says.

Shapcott's reticence, her level voice and her ability to convey vulnerability without self-pity make Of Mutability an original, affecting book; her finest to date.