A Postcard To (Red Squirrel Press, 2021) is an unusual collection for many reasons. To start with, there are the obvious ones, such as the fact that it’s co-authored by two poets – John Greening and Stuart Henson – as the book is comprised of their sonnets initially written on postcards to each other over the past twenty-five years. And then there’s the innovative format: pages are turned horizontal to imitate those afore-mentioned postcards. The consequent, ingenious marriage of formats is surprising and pleasing to the mind and eye.
However, A Postcard To is also unusual in more subtle ways. First off, its focus on personal, social and literary history is acute. Even the format itself – the postcards in question – is an artefact that’s rooted in the 20th Century, halfway between letters and WhatsApps. In this context, the poets not only show awareness of epistolatory traditions, but they also choose an ideal length of poem for their postcards, 14 lines lines just squeezing on to the available surface.
In terms of contents, meanwhile, that afore-mentioned consciousness of the individual’s place in history becomes clear once more. If these postcards are written while the poets are on trips, they inevitably coincide with counterpoints to their everyday experiences. As such, of course, they serve as celebrations of the act of travel, and feel even more significant during this pandemic that inhibits our movements so much. One such example can be found in the closing lines to Stuart Henson’s ‘Cranes Above Florence’:
…So they’re always here, turning
like mobiles, toiling to haul up
the perfect skyline – and spoiling it.
This poem is packed with contrasts that coexist and rub against each other: modernity and tradition, stasis and change, ideals and practicalities, all via the observation of a city that’s heaving with wider historical connotations.
Literary figures from the past play important roles throughout A Postcard To. The poets encounter places on their travels that are connected to dead writers, and consequent, implicit dialogues ensue, such as Henson’s thoughts on Hardy when he visits Dorset and Greening on Browning in Venice, as in the following extract…
…Fame throws its rope towards the
and misses, falls into the bluey green
oblivion of the Grand Canal, as Robert Browning
departs and leaves his dry son drowning.
Tensions run through this poem, from the missed rope of fame that has ramifications for creators of any genre at any point in history, through to Browning’s success in comparison to his son, all followed by the deeply personal clash of the final three words, homing in on the strains of a paternal relationship.
What turns A Postcard To into a unified collection is the implicit dialogue that’s struck up between the two poets through their shared concerns. The past is portrayed via the personal and the public, both Greening and Henson always very much aware of their individual places in the broader expanse of the passing of time. The reader, of course, is left to wonder how these traditions will be absorbed by the present and the future.
Greening and Henson know that postcards might fall out of fashion, but the need to tell people about our trips, to bounce places off each other, to compare our own stories with those we encounter, is eternal and inherent to the human condition. As such, this collection might seem locked in to specific times and places, but it actually holds the key to opening our minds to universal issues. Just like travel itself.