In his first full collection, The Space Between Us (Cinnamon Press, 2018), Neil Elder has produced poems that are limpid and clear in tone and content. Many readers, poets and critics underestimate the inherent difficulties and risks involved in writing work of such apparent simplicity: any slip and the poet is exposed without any paraphernalia to protect themselves.
As a consequence, there are inevitably a few failures in this book, but they are far outweighed by its many achievements. One of the latter is “Like My Daughter Says”:
“If, like my daughter says,
you are now a million particles
orbiting in space,
may you keep on spinning.
Or else as I look out tonight,
I hope you fall like snow
and settle for a while.”
Elder’s language is unassuming in this poem, and therein lies its strength. There’s no need for him to over-reach himself in his choice of simile (“like snow”), as he therefore encourages the reader to focus on the following line, where “for a while”, seemingly so slight and insubstantial, suddenly charges the whole poem with temporal significance. A less surefooted poet might have attempted an unexpected, jolting comparison so as to obtain their effect, instead of allowing their language to grow organically as in this case.
The most successful poems in The Space Between Us possess an ease and natural ear for sentence structure. They belie the hard work that must have been required to chip away until their choice of words felt inevitable and necessary. Another such example is “In Our Path”:
“There wasn’t anything more we could do –
the kitten noosed by orange wire lay dead
against the works where a team had fixed a leaking pipe.
Before we lay it beneath leaves
in a peaty shallow, you held the body
with the same care you had cradled Daniel
on that morning when everything changed.”
In this instance, Elder deftly layers insignificant details until they take on new meaning, while also holding back certain background information in the last line so as to let the poem open out beyond its ending.
All in all, The Space Between Us represents a strong statement of intent from a poet who’s brave enough to take on simplicity. Neil Elder’s verse offers us an excellent counterpoint to the commonplace usage of linguistic fireworks, and I very much look forward to seeing where he takes it from here.