Review of Wildgoose by Sally Evans. Published by Postbox Press 2021 (£8.99)
Wildgoose is the debut novel by established poet Sally Evans. It is subtitled ‘A Tale of Two Poets’. Cousins Maeve Cartier and Eric Grysewood are both poets; their relationship as cousins is in flux throughout the novel. Sometimes they are mutually supportive, at other times Eric neglects his cousin, often leaving her out of meetings with poets, not deliberately but carelessly. She is slightly younger and easily overlooked, as she rarely makes a fuss. The book covers over 70 years in its narrative arc. All the chapters have dates at the start which is very helpful to the reader. There is also a beautiful map drawn and lettered by Geoff Sawers.
This central relationship allows Evans to compare and contrast the emergence of male and female poets throughout the period she includes, starting in 1965 as the two poets begin to carve out their careers. Eric is older and starts making the most of his chances at university, meeting other poets and attending readings. Through him, she is invited to a reading with prominent poets present: John Silkin, Hugh MacDiarmid and Basil Bunting. Asked along to dinner afterwards, it occurs to her that ‘she might have been invited for decoration, for the flirt value’. Basil Bunting offers to look at her poems, but she hasn’t any with her, because she doesn’t have big pockets like the men. His kind offer to meet her the next day before her train never happens. But the influence of Briggflats remains seminal for her. As their careers develop, Eric gains valuable promotion and overseas residencies, whereas Maeve works humbly as a librarian while pursuing her writing career, and becomes a single parent. She and Eric continue to correspond and critique each other’s poems. She does not always approve of his work, but does not tell him so. Both are getting poems into good places. However Maeve has an ambitious long poem she keeps working on. In many ways, the novel is a story of that poems generation and eventual completion as much as a tale of two poets. A further twist is that Eric is gay, an inspired choice which allows Evans to explore alternative ‘scenes’, particularly when Eric is overseas. So in some ways this is a feminist novel, but it is also an inclusive one, though we never see Eric discriminated against, so it is also very positive. Maeve is never resentful or angry, she simply gets on with it. She rather likes men and enjoys the several relationships she has, some of them quite casual and easy-going. She is also friendly with several lesbian women and enjoys her time spent with them.
To look at the book from a Marxist perspective, it is interesting that the writing of poems is viewed as work, and the librarian job more of a money-earning hobby. This is often how poets see things; the job provides the funding but writing takes priority. The same is true of Eric, but being male and thus having more opportunities for poetry-related earning, he has a different balance. Maeve’s lifework is the Wildgoose poem. Eric is concerned with building his reputation, whereas Maeve is concerned with this ambitious poem. Eric edits a magazine and makes himself busy in the outside world, whereas Maeve lives mentally in the world of her slowly emerging poem. Eric’s subjects are more diverse. Ironically, it is Eric who is given the nickname Wildgoose, though it is Maeve who is obsessed with them.
The structure of the novel is very interesting. Most of it is written from Maeve’s perspective, though we hear from Eric in his letters. However, in the Coda, the last four chapters, the point of view changes to another female character who doesn’t appear in their previous 11 chapters. While most of the novel is chronological, the Coda plays with the time order to create suspense and intrigue. The novel starts with an incident from Maeve’s childhood when, as small child, she runs away on to Morecombe sands to see the geese. Eric tells on her, perhaps saving her life, but she is entranced by the geese and asserts that that they showed her the way back. This is the start of her fascination with the geese. They are often around at key points in her life; she has an affinity with them. Evans shows here how childhood experiences can shape poets, and where the spark of a poem can come from. The two different points of view are distinct from each other, showing Evans’ mastery of writing.
Anyone wanting to understand the way poets come together at events, discuss each other’s poems, gather together at festivals, compete with each other and show their human vulnerabilities, should read this novel. But in addition to the world of poetry in this period and how it’s changed up to the present day (the novel concludes in 2015), it is also a tale full of mystery and suspense. It’s a cracking good read for anyone, poet or not.
You can buy the book from here https://www.redsquirrelpress.com/product-page/wildgoose-sally-evans or King’s Bookshop in Callander, Scotland.