Tuesday 22 March 2022

Nuances and undercurrents, Helena Nelson's Pearls

When we approach Helena Nelson’s new book, Pearls (HappenStance Press, 2022), certain potential misnomers and misconceptions are worth addressing and dismissing.

First off, it isn’t really a collection as such. Instead, it’s subtitled The Complete Mr and Mrs Philpott Poems, and includes several poems that were previously published in earlier collections, now reprinted alongside a whole host of uncollected pieces. And secondly, Pearls isn’t thematic if we take that term as it’s understood by most people in the poetry world, i.e. preconceived, planned and executed as a whole. There are no fillers here, nor are there poems whose role is to link themes or join up a narrative. These are individual, connected poems that accumulated over decades.

And the above points lead us to a third clarification: Pearls is not a novel in verse. This is demonstrated by the fact that
every single poem retains its value as a stand-alone piece while also adding to the sum. Nelson employs a collage effect throughout the book, implicitly building her characters and their stories via juxtaposition, each scene, each moment, each episode enriching the reader's experience, page on page, pearl after pearl. As a consequence, it’s useful to quote Nelson’s own explanation, which reaches beyond the structure of the manuscript, taking her title as a point of departure to understanding life itself:

...But now I feel there’s a sense in which all the moments of our existence are suspended timelessly, pearls on a string. Each moment contains the whole story: beginning, middle and end...

And then there’s a fourth issue to clear up.
Poetry readers don’t often encounter the explicit, sustained deployment of three-dimensional characters, so it’s important to underline that these poems are far from being confessional in tone and content. This statement would be superfluous if we were discussing a novel, but even experienced heads often seem prone to seeking out pointless biographical parallels when it comes to considering poetry. Of course, any character contains a proportion of the writer that created them, but that’s the case in any novel too.

Moving on to the poems themselves, one of Helena Nelson’s greatest attributes is her knack for observation. Not just watching people and then portraying them, but the capacity to pick up on the nuances and undercurrents that play crucial roles in social and human relations. One such example is the closing couplet to

…She is back. He is glad. And the bed is glad
and a pot of coffee is almost ready.

he and she of this extract are the Philpotts, of course, the protagonists of this book. Their relationship, a second marriage in middle age, is evoked via snapshots such as these lines in which emotion is conveyed indirectly through the active role of objects such as the bed and the pot.

In technical terms, meanwhile, this couplet is fascinating. For instance, the penultimate line features three anapests before a iamb kicks in, drawing the elements together and offering a musical reassurance that’s mirrored by semantic warmth.

And what about the punctuation? At first glance, it might seem artificial or unusual. Two three-word sentences without conjunctions are then followed by a longer, unexpected sentence that goes against convention, not just by starting with a conjunction but also by refusing to place a comma midway through (at the end of that penultimate line). However, this punctuation is actually riffing on our expectations, surprising us and then turning inevitable, guiding us through the couplet’s delicate cadences.

As the clichéd rhetorical question goes, which came first, the chicken and the egg? In this case, however, we’re referring to the poet and the editor. Is Helena Nelson such a scrupulous editor because of her highly tuned understanding of the importance of the tension between sentence and line or has her poetic skill-set been further developed by her work as an editor?

Deep down, of course, the important thing remains that her awareness of syntactic and semantic cause and effect, already keenly felt in her first full collection, Starlight on Water (The Rialto, 2003), has only increased over the years. In fact, one of the aesthetic pleasures in reading this book is derived through observing an expert at work, admiring her control of sentence and line, learning from it.

In other words, Pearls possesses numerous attractions both for previous readers of the Philpott poems and for newcomers. Perhaps the most moving facet of this book can be found in the previously uncollected pieces that portray the couple’s ageing process and their slow-looming awareness of impending death. In this context, the books closing lines from Peril pack a huge punch:

...of course they are not all right

but she takes him in her arms
and she tells him that they are.

The mirrored, satisfying rhythms of this final couplet strengthen its comforting effect. And once again, there’s that slipping-away and stripping-back of punctuation, leaving behind only the words and their latent power.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that critics’ and judges’ prejudices might well kick in and indicate to them that Pearls will only be of interest to women of a certain age and certain social origin. They couldn’t be more wrong. Pearls matters to us all. Like any great story, its specificality is what makes it universal. And then, moreover, for poets themselves, it provides an implicit lesson in the roadcraft of writing poetry, far more useful than any handbook or workshop. With such wide appeal, here’s hoping Pearls reaches the swathes of readers that its poems so richly deserve.

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