By Matt Macdonald
Anamnesis is a collection of poems that couldn’t be more unforgettable if they tried. These forty-four poems are a symphony of lyrics and experiences across a wealth of topics, emotions and language.
Full disclosure, this reviewer has seen Iona Lee perform her work at several shows and events since she appeared on the poetry scene. Each and every time, I left the venue not only transcended by the composition and elegance of Lee’s writing, but also astonished by the ability of her performance and the assuredness inhabited on stage.
There is something about the particular lexical feats that Lee dredges up that paints them onto the walls inside my head in a way that ensures they continue to be enjoyed hours or days later.
To this day, from what will easily be more than half a decade ago, her poem ‘Away with the Faeries’ remains my go-to for any recommendation on poetry of loss, of love, of fae or mythology generally.
In the epigraph, ‘anamnesis’ is given the definition “moments of unusual clarity”. This is inherently true about the poems in this collection, but I feel that the term ‘moment’ is too short to cover the length of time these poems will linger inside you; while ‘clarity’ is too limited for the transcendence that Lee depicts through her linguistic choices.
It’s also unfair to consider this transcendence unusual. If poetry is the art of telling your reality in a way that renders it understandable to others, then this collection is the highest level of poetry.
Anamnesis touches on so much of life, be it love (Love Poem, We Two, Haloed, Hued), death (Graveyards and Gardens) or sticky toys shaped like the little grey men conventionally used to demonstrate aliens, which were children’s toys common the in early 2000s (PlayThing).
In her opening poem, Taking a Thought for a Walk, Lee mentions the artist Paul Klee and the anecdote in which Klee described his studio as a garden. The rest of the poem wanders with this concept and exhibits the first hint of her ability to very directly “paint a word picture”, which she does across the rest of the collection.
More than just lyrically and lexically diverse, these poems show a fantastic talent for constructing the words in, around and through negative space, and border on the concrete in some cases.
In View From a Train Window, Lee places her words against lines on the page, to embody the murder of crows on telephone wires that are visible in the titular view. A typographic flourish that is also included in Lullaby For the Ferryman, where a horizontal line dances with the words of the poem.
It is not just in these moments of concrete poetry or alliances with negative space that showcase Lee’s talent. The poems themselves present the work of someone with an astute and unerring eye for the image, the tone, the context to catch your breath.
In the poem We Two, Haloed, Hued, the final stanza reads:
and we are laughing
him with his mouth full, and I
for all the women – untongued
and tethered – whose blood I shed
in this wet, hot happiness
Life has made you sad
and filthy with strange power –
as brand new and ancient
Or An Image of an Image of an Image:
in full gold leaf and jewel tone, the sensual
world in all its buzzing, folded, fizzing,
fruitful busyness and boom
Lee’s work across these poems demonstrates her skill both as a writer and an artist and a musician to the extent that the concept of a ‘centrepiece’ poem gets rather lost, because every other poem is the centrepiece. The Past Is Just a Tale We Tell, You Burn Me, Thin Place & Graveyards and Gardens all function as centrepieces, on loci of coalescence for the whole collection.
Of these You Burn Me stands as the most central of them, and it defies any level of quotation, existing only to be contemplated and read as a complete poem.
One of the greatest joys in hearing Lee perform her words is the way she can move from discussing joyful celebration and the forgetting of loss, to a two page poem about a children’s toy. In each instance, the poems are presented and crafted with the same care, compassion and consideration.
In point of fact, the poem here about children’s toys includes one of the most stark and lasting images in the whole collection (Childhood/is single use.) and stands as testament to the love of language that all of Lee’s poems demonstrate.
This collection dissects memory, remembrance and the minutiae of life in ways that are equally eviscerating and elegant. It is a stunning debut and clear evidence that the next collection will be something to await eagerly. Her love for the craft is present on every page and it is a delight to share in it as a reader. As she says herself in the poem Thin Places:
I don’t need faith
to find that sacred.
It does the thing to me too
where words fall, and all that remains
is the light.
About our contributor
Matt Macdonald (they/them) is a poet, writer and reviewer based in Edinburgh. Their work has appeared in The Scottish Review of Books, The Glasgow Review of Books, and The Glad Rag. They have also taken eight shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, including an hour long newly written fairy tale. They have published two books, the latest of which is petrichor, by Red Squirrel Press (2018)