Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 16 July 2001

"Mr and Mrs Philpott on Holiday at Aucherawe" by Helena Nelson (Kettillonia, 2001)

It's uncommon to see an even-handed portrayal of a stable couple in poetry. Too often we get an autobiography (one-sided in terms of viewpoint if not blame) charting a break-up. Fictional couples are rarer still, a missed opportunity because the mixed shades of privacy, the revealing habits (how they clean the bathroom), the simple, only partially shared pleasures all offer potentially interesting subject matter.

In this booklet of poems (some free verse, some metred, some rhymed) middle-age is beginning to fade away for the Philpotts and subtle preparations are being made for death. They row sometimes, but all couples do. The title poem (which appeared in The Rialto and The Forward book of poetry 2001) introduces us symbolically to some of the themes. It begins with Philpott, (naked except for his glasses) examining a distant squall from his conservatory, and ends with Mrs Philpott finding consolation in whoever's next to her as she wakes from her dreamworld. The references to underwear, voices and marmalade are picked up in later poems, which adopt various viewpoints as we discover how the couple like to spend their time and how they react to Xmas, socks, and money. We meet the ghosts of partners past - the dead and the abandoned. There's a fuzzying of personal boundaries: her hair is something he sees much more than she does; her sleeping body is never part of her world, only his; introspective monologues are taken over by The Other.

No major crises happen during the timespan of the work - personality is revealed by the response to everyday events, and given depth by the parallax of two individuals' reactions. Lyricism arises naturally from the settings - freed from the characters' dreams rather than pasted from the poet's notebook. There are muted examples, as at the end of Curtains

Cradling his anxious meadow of skin
facing the wide, uncurtained window

or Preserves

the flood of light in a forest glade
sweet-bitter sunset. Marmalade.

or Cake

It will rise, like heaven, and then be gone.

and intense bursts, most clearly demonstrated in the last, 4 line poem Love.

There's a sense of artistic unity, though there are few direct references between the poems. Rather they provide mutual support, rounding the characters by bringing more of their facets into view. Birds, voices and pinkness weave through the poems both in imagery and observation, binding the work together.

By the end of the pamphlet we feel we've had at least a novella's worth of insight into the couple. So many poetry books are too long nowadays - it's refreshing to see a through-composed collection, the carefully sequenced poems having a cumulative effect. Maybe there's hope yet for the pamphlet form.

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