The Shipwrecked House by Claire Trévien

24th Sep 2013

The Shipwrecked House by Claire Trévien
This maritime collection is longlisted for the Guardian Best First Book prize, the second poetry book to secure the readers' nomination in the last two years.

The Shipwrecked House tells the story of a home rocked by whales and washed up with the tide, where babies have scales for skin and seaweed dangled into their crib.

The collection has no single anchor, but an admirable array of inspiration, from Buffy to Angela Carter to Arthur Rimbaud. Claire Trévien’s eclectic approach allows for a real mix of poetic allegiance and provenance – many poems are composed ‘for’ or ‘after’ someone else – and the end product is a pick and mix collection salvaged from various styles: the very best of a wreckage.

Poetry gathered from the sea-drift allows for new juxtapositions and play with form. The result can be Frankensteinian, and ‘Head Start’ harbours the doubts of a woman gestating a serial killer, ‘the bump protruding like a sweaty punch’.

Often the carnage is suspended within or between poems, and the excellent ‘Sing Bird’ experiments with lines of sliding and accumulating verse, each side borrowing from the other until the space that separates them forms a jagged wave across the page.

Perhaps the best example of Trévien’s work mimicking the effects of a sea-storm comes in the sequence following ‘Journeys of Evaporation’, which next becomes ‘Journey’, then ‘Our’.

The evaporation occurs between each sister poem when Trévien dismantles verse until it is depleted, stripped skeletal and letters are eroded with every turn of the page.

At frequent intervals throughout The Shipwrecked House, there is a drive towards languagelessness, and Trévien aligns the lost-for-words response to the ocean’s enormity with a language scattered and floating free.

But even this hope is proved impossible, or even fatal, when she wrestles with an attempt to convey a tongue-tied wonder in words. In ‘Endnotes to a History of the Sea’, the speaker does not achieve her ‘esteemed aphasia’ because ‘When the sea is intercepted/ by a body, filling your heart with salt, there is only euthanasia’.

a pick and mix collection salvaged from various styles: the very best of a wreckage.Such a grappling with inarticulacy draws attention to the risk of repetition, when even ‘The sky is crooked, already used’. In fact, Trévien shows great skill in making nature new with wonderful images like the rusty, solidified ‘salty hedge’ of the sea and observations that

The weather’s gained weight,
sags its pebbled belly against the tips
of the city’s horns.

Such fresh metaphors are due in part to Trévien’s keen sensory awareness¬– ‘Smells are swallows too fast to track’ – which is perhaps a tribute to her collaborative work between poets and perfumers in Penning Perfumes.

As we learn in ‘La Frégate’, words leave the writer’s desk as ‘replenished ships, departed and never returned’. This maritime collection has arrived from Trévien as such: a fleet of poems that collide and depart from one another in unexpected ways.

The Shipwrecked House, published by Penned in the Margins, collates the sea-tossed flotsam and written remains of a wreckage, and thoroughly deserves its nomination as the tenth title in the longlist for Guardian’s first book award.


  • Dan Holloway says:

    Also recommended for anyone who enjoys this wonderful collection – Mal de Mer by Marie Darrieussecq (published in English as Breathing Underwater)