Thursday 25 August 2016

Helena Nelson, poet

Many casual observers of the U.K. poetry scene will have heard of Helena Nelson. They’ll know that she’s the editor of HappenStance Press. They might even know of her limericks and performance pieces. What’s unfortunately fading into the background is that she’s a significant, major-award-winning “serious” poet.

I’d been wanting to write the above paragraph for several years. Why didn’t I? Because I didn’t want my views to be coloured by my readers’ knowledge that she was the publisher of my pamphlets. Now that Eyewear Books are bringing out my first full collection next year, it’s time for Rogue Strands to celebrate Helena Nelson’s terrific verse.

Today’s post will concentrate on Nelson’s first full collection, Starlight on Water (The Rialto, 2003), which was a joint winner of the Aldeburgh Jerwood Prize. Let’s start with an extract from section IV of its pivotal sequence “From Interrogating the silence”:

“Your letters matter more than you will know.
You write; I keep them, one by one, as snug
as acorns in their shell. I go to them
if all else fails. When the north-east wind blows
and tugs at the curtains, when my heart has dug
a hole for itself, when nothing can stem
obliteration – no place else to go –
I open them...”

There’s no need to explain these lines, yet their clarity doesn’t impede their emotional impact. Quite the opposite is true. This isn’t so-called restraint. Only rare talents have so light a touch as to be capable of transmitting such depth and authenticity of feeling via apparently simple words. Nelson is keenly aware her challenge is not in expressing something that is true to her but in making it true for the reader.

And yet she’s also at ease in several different registers. Among the performance pieces and biting satire, there are sudden changes of gear like in the following extract from “When my daughter goes down in the dark”:

“…Her eyes deepen. She puts on pearls,
dresses herself in darkest blue.
Shadows soften her mouth and chin,
new frost sparkles beneath her skin."

Anorexia is never explicitly invoked, but its menace is all-pervading in this poem. Language becomes sensuously dangerous in Nelson’s hands. Yet again, another tone, yet again a coherent idiosyncratic eye holding her broad poetic vision together.

And there are more examples to come. The Philipott poems, for instance, deserve a post to themselves. The collection’s closing sequence, they dissect an entire society via a single couple’s relationship.

The shorter pieces, meanwhile, are simply exquisite. I’m delighted to have Nell’s permission to quote one of my favourites in full here:

Completing the outfit

I used to wish you’d put your hands just so
about my waist, spanning me here and here,
encircling me in love and trust, although
you never knew I cherished the idea.
A small thing. Doesn’t matter. Time is gone.
Your hands, so square and kind, don’t speak to me.
My waist has come to terms with life alone.
My breathing’s calm. My heart goes quietly.
I find these days I like to wear a belt.
I bear it like your touch around the core.
It keeps me safe. Quite recently I felt
I had to tighten it. I think it’s more
than reassurance in well-seasoned leather:
it may be all that’s holding me together.

This poem’s strength lies in its ability to undermine itself (and its narrator) throughout. The reader only realizes its perfection when reaching the end and immediately heading back to the start.

Helena Nelson’s poetry must be read. For that reason, I’m making a unique exception on Rogue Strands. You can find Starlight on Water’s product page at The Rialto here and at the HappenStance website here.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

For the sake of the ritual

I spend a lot of time in Chichester - my parents retired there, so it's still my bolthole from an Extremaduran summer that's pushing 42ºC this week - and the cathedral could end up seeming something of a backdrop to life, a spire that can be spotted when approaching the city from almost any angle. However, I can never bring myself just to walk past.

I have to go in to the cathedral every time and find An Arundel Tomb. Larkin's poem is hung in a frame alongside. By now, there's no need to look at the text, as its words fall through my lips of their own accord, but I still do, line by line, for the sake of the ritual. I take David, my son, whenever he's with me, and we read it together. He learns how poetry can make such a shiver-inducing lump come alive...

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Delicious adverbs, Mel Pryor's Small Nuclear Family

Received wisdom tends to indicate that poets should avoid adverbs whenever possible. This is patently absurd: we need every linguistic tool available. Of course, adverbs can provoke a calamitous fall, but they can also lift a poem when in the hands of an expert like Mel Pryor, as she demonstrates on several occasions in her first full collection, Small Nuclear Family (Eyewear Publishing, 2015).

One such example occurs in her poem “Hokusai”, which portrays a pocket of emotion, as in the following extract:

“Since he upped and left her and their son
for the printmaker in Tokyo,

I’ve noticed how she curves forward slightly
like a tall Japanese wave breaching

the moment between rise and fall…”

Mel Pryor takes her character and scene, and then homes in on a resonant detail, that afore-mentioned pocket of emotion. In this case, it’s the way her character curves forward slightly.  Implicit restraint, via the adverb, is placed in juxtaposition to the latent power of the wave.

Here is a further instance of Pryor’s deft use of adverbs, from “Your girlfriend’s red leather jacket”:

“…my elbow pushing out the hollow shaped by hers,
and under the top left pocket with her lipstick in
the beat of my heart fitting precisely the beat of hers.”

The use of precisely once again lends an extra charge to the verb, while the final line’s gorgeous cadence mirrors that of a heartbeat, music married to sense.

And now for a third example, this time from “Housework”:

“…How glorious, to be held like that,
his little paunch in the small of her back,

her hands pulling his hands against the rolls of her belly,
the warmth of his cheek pressing through her hair,

and below them laid out messily
in the drawer, the knives, forks and spoons.”

Pryor celebrates physical imperfection before underlining her point with messily, revelling  in the counterpoint of an unexpected partnership between verb and adverb. Via her skilled portrayal of this specific detail, the poem comes alive.

Mel Pryor’s Small Nuclear Family builds its emotional impact via an idiosyncratic, delightful blend of approaches that surprises the reader, poem after poem. I’ll be coming back to it for a long time to come.