The Blue Den by Stephanie Norgate

The Blue Den

Stephanie Norgate

Bloodaxe Books, 2012

Perfect Bound, 80 pages

ISBN: 978-1-85224-937-3

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Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Elizabeth Kate Switaj 

Throughout the The Blue Den, Stephanie Norgate emphasizes change and impermanence, but this impermanence never becomes instability. The accompanying sense of interrelatedness and the careful observation that becomes empathy extended even to inanimate objects do not redeem impermanence but, rather, prevent it from becoming the sort of uncertainty that requires redemption.

Change influences both the content and form of these poems. In the first of the “Other Voices” poems, a stream addresses the ice that it has become and, in so doing, reveals stasis as a state of change: “I wasn’t expecting this change of being, / this suspension of flow, these notes that stones / chip from our shared surface of rime.” Freezing, a change, stops the movement of a river, but even still stones alter the new stasis—musically. The ant in “Other Voices: Ant to Sky” may persist, but “ant” here, as the poem makes gradually clear, refers to ant as a collective of individuals—“my many selves”—who die and are replaced. Long stretches of anaphora in “Health and Safety Stops the Raft Race” serve not to suggest sameness, but rather, to draw attention to how much has vanished as the result of what seems to be a single change:

no more Sundays of hammering oil tins and plastic tanks to planks,
no more nailing bits of two-by-four,
no more paths opened to secret fields behind secret farms,
no more brushed balsam popping seeds,
no more thrown eggs, no more pitched flour,
no more legless plastic seats, no more pink wigs . . .


The repetition continues for two more lines before being interrupted with a line beginning “where.” The refrain of “no more” is then taken up again throughout the poem—not always at the beginning of lines. Even repetition changes.

In other cases, in this collection, style and form more directly demonstrate change. In some poems, enjambment dominates. The lines change even before the sentence or clause can complete. More important to foregrounding impermanence, however, is variety of styles within the collection. Poems are built of couplets, quatrains, or longer stanzas. (Occasionally, a poem contains only a single verse.) Lines contain as few as two syllables or go on longer than alexandrines. Other poems depart from more standard structures: “Against bullet points” is a bulleted list. Several poems eschew full-stops, and “the memory of the heart,” among them, also carries extra-long spaces in the middle of most of its lines, while “living fossil” favors dashes and contains no capital letters. Style is not permanent, even within the bounds of a single volume.

Within these shifting poems, what remains consistent is the sense of connection and interdependence between all elements of the world, along with the poet’s close awareness of each of these elements. “Racton Voices” connects “tower to air,” “ivy to tower,” and “tower to boy.” “Variations on a Plain Hem” links travelers to the people who made their clothes:

Here, in the body of the plane,
we touch the brush of their backstitch,
the traces of their DNA,
the whorl of each finger, flying with us through the night.


DNA again appears as connection in “Recovery”: “She forgot herself that day, marveling at the way / she shared the DNA of the sap with the snapping jaws / of the caterpillar whose lace work she would discard.”

Norgate watches these different connected figures close enough that observation becomes empathy. In the poem named for them, the “Plastic Bags Along the A27” “. . .are bleached ears, swollen, / listening to their own crackling.” To know something fully is to feel for it and to care about it in the world of The Blue Denas, perhaps, in the broader world as well.

And it is for this caring and awareness, or creation, of connection to stand against the shifting world that we value stories, as does Alfred in “The Old Traders”: “. . . This is the real gift, Alfred thinks / as his scribe writes it down, this story will go on / forever now, the ways of the heathen traders.” It is for what she preserves, in the middle of its changing and while foregrounding that various process of change, that Stephanie Norgate’s work in creating The Blue Den most deserves to be praised. She gives us more than a carefully preserved moment, even as the moment persists.

Elizabeth Kate Switaj’s first collection of poetry, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. Her pamphlet, Warburg’s Tincture of Sonnets, is forthcoming from Like This Press. She recently completed a PhD in English Literature at Queen’s University Belfast.