There are poets who have something profound to say and there are others poets who are highly accomplished in their art, expert technicians. Feverfew (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2021), Anna Saunders’ latest collection, shows she is one of that rare breed of writers who can do both and having read the collection several times I can say I was truly left in awe at the quality of writing it displays.
Underpinning her work is a compassion and a belief in social justice. This is particularly evident in her political poems which convey her outrage and despair at a social and political structure that enables those in power to serve their own ends rather than the greater good. In The Wolf Speaks at the Tory Party Conference she writes: ‘Learn from us/seek out those you can overpower/break them down to that which your off-spring can digest.’ This typically visceral image of animals tearing their prey apart to feed their offspring the bloody remains is a powerful indictment of a corrupt system that allows those in power to exploit ‘the sick, the weak, the broken’ for their own material benefit and that of their families. Saunders despairs that this inequality is self-perpetuating: ‘We ache for change, yet each creature that rules the court/is a rooster’s brother with jaundiced eyes.’ (Time after Time the Same Bird is Born from the Flame). Our political masters are resilient, their position impregnable even to violent action or insurrection: ‘Not even death will bring an end to this’…’How wrong we are to think that fire/can cauterise corruption’. Though the personalities might change the corruption and injustices will endure, the vulnerable will suffer, lives will be destroyed and the planet ruined.
Saunders is deeply concerned about the fate of the environment. The minutely observed, natural imagery that characterises much of this collection suggests a writer who is sensitively attuned to nature. She expresses her fears about its destruction in Now the Earth is an Embering Coal in which she draws upon the myths of Icarus and Phaeton to emphasise the profound significance of selfish, materialistic acts which ignore our forebears’ respect for nature. She describes Phaeton as ‘carapaced in gold/hooved and pluming smoke/’ searing ‘the planet//just as if (he’d) taken a flame/to a scrap of paper/that the gods had tossed.’ The consequence is that ‘Now the earth is an embering coal’: an image that splendidly draws together ideas of global warming and the impact of fossil fuels. Saunders deals with similar ideas In Hades Justifies His Off-Roader though the tone of the poem is altogether lighter and satirical. Drivers of off-road vehicles are portrayed as Hades, driving through the underworld, defending ‘the emissions which plume/and unfurl like a scribble at the end/of a Death warrant’ (What an image!) and leaving fear and destruction in his wake. At the end of the poem, the tone changes as Saunders prompts us to reflect upon the beauty that he has destroyed: ‘the winged martyrs that collide/ with his windscreen//turned angelic white as they are picked out/in the headlights//before glistening like broken berries/when they hit the road’. The imagery lends a significance and value to the life of the humble insect killed when it collides with Hades’ vehicle. In Saunders’ view every element of nature is precious and worth preserving.
Whilst the poems in the first half of the collection tend to be turned outwards, towards social and natural environments, the poems in the second half of the collection are turned inwards as Saunders explores the nature of relationships. The territory may be familiar with themes such as love, family, grief and loss but Saunders’ approach to these subjects is both fresh and innovative. Take for example her poem, So much Blood around my Name, in which she uses the tattoo as a symbol of the pain of a failed relationship and of grief at the subsequent death of the woman’s ex from a broken heart. Significantly pain in the relationship is there even before the parting: ‘You looked like an injured soldier/after you had it done’. The tattoo of her name signifies his commitment but it is more than that. It also conveys the suffering in their relationship even before the parting, for love in Saunders’ poetry is often both pleasure and pain. Later in the poem the tattoo characterises their subsequent antagonism, described in terms of needling each other, and ultimately the fact that their relationship had been doomed from the start (‘So early in the day and you were already wounded’). This is writing of the highest calibre: the imagery is both original and imaginatively developed to give the poem real power and resonance, often with the effect of attributing the confessional, or personal, a universal significance.
There is no doubt that Anna Saunders is an exceptionally talented poet. In her poem Almost Raptors she describes a poetry night where ‘the words the poets uttered seemed punched out/by the mic’s clenched fist’. This is yet another wonderful image which might also be used to describe her own poetry. As suggested above her work conveys a deep understanding of the human condition: there is an underlying sensitivity and empathy in what she writes, but don’t mistake this for the ‘feather-light, fluttering poetry’ she describes herself reading at home in the same poem. This is powerful stuff that I guarantee will spear your attention: it will sometimes shock, sometimes disturb, sometimes reassure but it will always excite. This is a collection that will endure and Anna Saunders deserves the highest accolade for her stunning work. Get yourself a copy!
Anna Saunders is the author of Communion (Wild Conversations Press), Struck (Pindrop Press), Kissing the She Bear (Wild Conversations Press), Burne Jones and the Fox and Ghosting for Beginners (both Indigo Dreams). She has had poems published in numerous journals and anthologies. Anna holds a Masters in Creative and Critical Writing from The University of Gloucestershire and is the CEO and founder of the Cheltenham Poetry Festival. To find out more and buy a copy of Feverfew click here.