Vicki Feaver is an extremely fastidious poet. The Book of Blood is only her third book in a quarter of a century. Feaver's patience becomes more intriguing because she hasn't been writing epics in the meantime: The Book of Blood contains brief narrative episodes, lyrics and evocations, often in domestic settings, with the ambition all in the doing, rather than in scale or novelty.
But the household of Feaver's imagination has extensive cellars, where distinctly undomesticated powers await her attention - a ruthless Medea, a sacrificial bull and, most hauntingly, the Welsh owl-goddess Blodeuwedd. Feaver's poem accesses in miniature the power and terror of Alan Garner's re-casting of the myth in The Owl Service. Blodeuwedd conspired with a lover to kill her husband. She explains: "No one taught me it was wrong." Turned into an owl, she concludes: "Sometimes, I lunge at your lighted/ windows, printing the glass/ with breast, talons, outstretched wings,/ flower face of a desperate girl."
In The Book of Blood the barriers between species can seem uncertain and Feaver pays rather more than lip service to the sense that we are creatures before we are moralists: for example, women and female buzzards have "the shared/ ferocity of mothers". Perhaps the most startling example is "Bufo Bufo", about a toad living in the cellar. The creature's repellent diet and slimy habitat are meticulously evoked, as is his urge to mate, "But he's my prisoner - soft, warty stone/ who at night swells/ to the size of a man." The comedy of female scorn has acquired a troubling erotic gleam.
Feaver's view of gender seems at times surprisingly traditional, yet at others it is unsparingly radical in its emphasis on the irresistible importance of pleasure and power and on their close cousinship with death. When a lover begins shooting food for the table, the speaker finds: "A gun brings a house alive.// I join in the cooking: jointing/ and slicing, stirring and tasting - / excited as if the King of Death/ has arrived to feast, stalking/ out of winter woods,/ his black mouth/ sprouting golden crocuses."
The Persephone myth, rather pallid in some tellings, gets a jolt of new and rather sinister energy here. In the wrong hands, myth and archetype are merely ciphers for the work which the imagination is failing to do, but Feaver's best poems offer a disquietingly direct apprehension of the powers by which we are made and driven, and which we must somehow seek to appease.
'The Book of Blood' has been shortlisted for the Forward poetry prize. Sean O'Brien's poetry collection 'Cousin Coat' is published by PicadorReuse content