Review of Precious Mettle by Sarah Wallis

There’s much to like in Precious Mettle by Sarah Wallis. For starters, the title is an interesting play on words, one which reflects many of the themes to be discovered in this book. These are poems about survival in a world which is constantly changing yet also repetitive. Different generations can find themselves facing similar circumstances through relationships and events which may be rewarding or challenging, sometimes both. The core meaning of mettle is resilience or the ability to survive no matter what life throws our way. We need this, just as we need the natural world around us and all of its surprises, often hidden beneath our feet. There are so wonderful images of survival in this book.

The Persephone Room shows a beautiful vision of Hades with …stucco walls in plain washed pink, where silhouetted trees are dotted precious / with bright, gold, pomegranates / spaced in time like planets… Here, beauty is darkened with a hollow promise and a candlelit supper …ever a trick / to catch a girl on a darkling promise. In a perfect example of how less can be more, the relationship between Persephone and her mother Demeter is left until the final lines;

And somewhere over and above the adventuring,

the keen of a mother’s six-month spaced grief.

The Midas Girl reinterprets the legend of king Midas, cursed to turn everything he touched into gold, with a contemporary account of the narrator being injected with gold, a treatment once used for inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. The poem begins with one of Sarah’s wonderful first lines; I am more precious now, stock rising with each injection as I take on more treasure, a pirate’s gleam.  The scientist is turning her …into an ingot / and with rude delight compare / soaring notes as traders might… If I were to be weighed / and sold I would amount to more / than the sum of myself.

The wonderful Origin Story is a clever re-positioning of the tale of Iris, ancient Greek messenger of the gods, who has been captured by early man. As Iris struggles to escape, she tears her rainbow skirts and releases their colours in a beautiful re-imagining of the creation of rainbows.

…but the man told the other men
of the mountains and they drew down
the rainbow with a spell, held to her skirts
and fixed her into the earth forever

…so the singing continued
of the seven colours sown into the mountain…

By definition, myth contains unprovable mysteries. They offer us narrative stories without evidence and Sarah makes wonderful use of the spaces contained within them, gaps where a poet’s imagination can soar. There are poems about the four excavated golden bronze age hats, and the Nebra sky disc, made of bronze, gold and copper; artefacts about which far more is unknown than known. Subjects like these, where exact origins and meanings remain a mystery, are ideal subjects for poetry, and Sarah is adept at re-examining them through fresh contemporary eyes.

My favourite poems include How the Pearl Became with its tripartite structure, each section taking an alternative approach to the creation and cultural significance of pearls, and The World Stands Still to Weep with its wonderful opening line; Zero point zero zero two five grams – is the weight or a tear. It’s a line to remember, as are so many in this poem including how each tear is clear and perfectly formed as snowflakes make lone / journeys of sorrow…

Sarah writes amazing first lines.  I remember a workshop which examined the importance of opening lines as tools of attraction and there are many wonderful examples in this collection.  I particularly liked My father kept shares in a Columbian goldmine (aurum meum) / but wouldn’t allow me to keep a goldfish (carassius auratus) from Latin for Goldfish and The girl speaks with fluency and easy / breath on the stage in Liquidity. In each case, I was immediately drawn into what followed.

Latin for Goldfish by Samira Mian

For me, there were two outstanding poems. A Box of Opal Fish with its jeweller’s workshop in Shanghai which reeks of green tea and pink roses, incongruous / and well past blown, clinging on, a death scent hangs about their skirts…How could anyone not want to know what follows this! Also, My mother is an Aviary stayed with me long after I first read it. In this poem, a mother is reimagined as birds merged with more personal memories, and concludes;

My mother is an aviary
all lapis lazuli
all kingfisher blue

the feline and the feathered
find an all-weather arc. And she is my mother,
an ear on the phone and a beacon in the dark.

This poem left me thinking how all mothers can be described as aviaries, with their characters and personalities likened to a variety of different birds. For me, this poem is both original and thought-provoking, offering an excellent insight into Sarah’s poetic eye and intuition.

Precious Mettle contains poems about the survival of myth, objects, and humans coping with difficulty. Every time I turned a page, I was wondering what I’d find next and was never disappointed. We all need individual mettle. The stamina to survive is indeed a precious gift, and these poems remind you of shared life experiences or, more importantly, different ways of seeing. Sometimes, when life gets hard, all we need to do is change our viewpoint, or be reassured we are not alone, and Sarah’s poetry achieves both of these in many remarkable ways.

Precious Mettle is published by Alien Buddha Press. It follows a long line of publications including How to Love the Hat Thrower and Medusa Retold. Each is worth exploring but, if you are new to Sarah’s work, Precious Mettle offers an ideal place to start.

Sarah Wallis is a poet and playwright, based in Scotland, UK, since moving from Yorkshire in 2019. Theatrical residencies include Leeds Playhouse and Harrogate Theatre, as well as work for Leeds Fringe. Sarah’s blog can be found here and Sarah tweets as @wordweave

Let me know what you thought about this post