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Veering, mysterious, crystal clear: Claire Crowther, The Clockwork Gift, 83pp. Shearsman. 978-1-84861-032-3, £8.95

Two kinds of being concern Claire Crowther in this collection: grandmothers and the mythical "thike". The thike is an English creature perhaps somewhere between an elf and a haggis, a risky whimsical invention which the poet uses to reflect on contemporary life, including its manifestation in the media: "The prevalence / of a unique English animal / is like a local murder." Sometimes the two themes coalesce, as when a dead elderly thike is glimpsed by the road: "That older female by the traffic island, / hair flattened – how the rush hour traffic / rubber-necked to see her, a thike out of / her moat. That mass of blackening yellow on the News."

Grandmothers are the heart of this book, however. In poem after poem Crowther pays them attentive tribute and, more generally, lyricises the lives of late middle-aged and elderly women. In one piece, devoted to a woman from centuries ago, she asks the reader to "take note of my grandmother’s white veil," but also "that her red cheeks plump / all wrinkles out." The women here have experience but also a kind of residual youthfulness which can help in the most unlikely and sometimes sorrowful circumstances. In the poem "Mine, Then", Crowther focuses on the continuing AIDS crisis where those grandmothers who have lost their own daughters may now have inherited their orphaned grandchildren. The grandmother’s special qualities offer endurance against such a tragedy: "it was as easy to make them laugh / as to find a vein."

The sequence "St Anne’s Apocrypha" is perhaps the culmination of Crowther’s theme, the Anne here being the grandmother of Jesus. That Anne bore Mary only later in life is a muted oblique premonition of Mary’s own extraordinary pregnancy. However, Crowther is seldom merely a story-teller. Yes, her poems can be crystal-clear, as with her sharp observations about a visit to the zoo café in the title poem – "My granddaughter / opened a Kid’s Bag. I wound / the clockwork gift." – but even here note the transformation of expectation in that "clockwork". The suggestion of a timepiece, so often associated with old age (grandfather clocks, wind-up watches), becomes here a plastic freebie. Yet, even so, most often Crowther’s work is riddling, veering, mysterious; deadly serious or quietly funny.

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