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.

Friday, 11 October 2013

"Nearly the Happy Hour" by D.A. Prince (HappenStance, 2008)

On the back cover it says that "Her light verse is well-known to readers of The New Statesman and The Spectator" - both are difficult markets, though no easier than "Magma", "Other Poetry", and "Smiths Knoll" where some of these poems come from. The collection begins by looking back at childhood, and ends with poems about loss in adulthood - "One Last Thing" and "The Other Side", the latter ending with a forward glance - "at last,/ all the freedom you ever wanted". In the centre are two poems in which the narrator comes close to living in the moment. In the title poem the narrator asks "I wonder what's happened to Now?" and in the next poem, "The Day after Valentine's Day", "Sainsbury's which yesterday had hoped/ for love in abundance, cuts its losses". Within that frame some themes emerge - birds, the home with its domestic items, childhood - and there are 4 poems about truth, photographs and cameras that demonstrate anxiety about the camera never lying -

  • "And Here's the Proof" - The narrator's looking at a photo of herself as a child. At the end we learn that the child's saying I don't want my photo taken. Perhaps now she's grateful that it was.
  • "School Photograph: 1957" - The third-person narrator lists what is (or might be) in the future for the children. The (too-predictable?) ending is "Shining, clenched into happy-ever-after,/ here's how they sit before it all goes wrong".
  • "Self-Portrait: With Camera" - Sounds more like a painting - "All exaggeration; nothing but sand … Crane-fly/ by Giacometti … Only an outline … I call it my best likeness"
  • "Taking the Photo" - Someone asks the narrator to photograph them. The narrator sees what the camera does, the signs of ageing etc. - "her voice has emptied certainty out like/ a heap of sand". At the end, the other person says they'll take a photo of the narrator.

The poetry's mostly mainstream (I suspect unashamedly so) with some unobtrusive formalism, but before jumping to too many conclusions about that, consider the start and end of "Writing Just About Parsley", the first poem

An east window and midsummer sun spilling
across the sill and gawky parsley with its trail of stems,
faintness under green translucence.
But so much irrelevance: the kitchen

written over with kettle flex, coffee stains
No nearer truth, the barely leaves are tasting
light, first time afloat.

7.30 a.m., the 21st of June.
This year it's flat-leaf; you need to know that.

It has an accessible surface, which sometimes causes readers to stop looking any deeper (they would do were the language fragmentary). It lingers in the mind though, because of what's happening below the words. "That was then", "The Pig-Killing Knife" and "String" similarly insist on there being more than meets the eye. By about p.20 I was wondering why she wasn't much better known. By the end my ambivalence about the mainstream was having an effect.

"Shoes" is typical of the well-crafted poems that should go down well at readings despite every line counting. A widow (we assume) is tidying up, "splitting a life/ between the council tip and charity shop ... Giving cupboards back their breathing space". She's "Moving on, like they said". Then she knots the shoes "In pairs. Just like they said". Trying to assert control over her life, she does what others say. And things come in pairs.

I suppose "Hugo" exemplifies the mainstream tendency. Hugo is a 5-year old whose reaction to nested Russian Dolls is presented in the 14-line first stanza - "each smiling mother popping from the cup/ he's tugged and wrestled into birth". In stanza 2 he's told some truths about Russia, which he's not ready for, but at the end "he understands enough of families to know/ the smallest gets the most protection, and outside - / friends, far and near relations, playmates, loves - / somehow, we all fit in". I can imagine readers enjoying the observation of the first stanza and the insights of the second, the universalisation of the family scene. I also can imagine other readers being irritated by the pacing, the faith in (and transparency of) language, the happy ending in a world of happy families.

In "High Flight" observation again triggers reflection - a jet's vapour trail completes a triangle. The lines blur "like white dust memories of maths". The narrator says that it's not the proofs that are recalled, but the feel of the exercise books, the idea of showing the working and getting marks for being wrong. At the end the narrator says that nowadays one tries to get the answer at any cost, no prizes for mistakes "breathless/ and unstable as the reckoning of clouds". But is that true? Can't one learn from mistakes, realise they weren't mistakes after all? And is it a likely (rather than convenient) chain of associations that the poem relates?

The numerous bird poems aren't like each other. To take just 2 examples,

  • "Sparrows" were "So common we ignored them". "Only as their society shrank, silent,/ were they sudden news ... In ones and twos/ they were watched over". Finally they're "valued/ for their everyday reassurance, their gritty/ resolution, their common-sense mirror of us,/ their shabby survival tricks, their necessary lives".
  • "Swans" isn't anthropomorphic. Though the longest poem, it begins in a hurry with "We took to feeding the swans for good luck/ after chain store orders dried up" and continues supplying twists, with bishops, swamis, a canal, and the "silky scarf of swan's breath".

Every so often there's a surprise - "What Time is it, Mr Wolf", for example, or "Red", or "Solomon Grundy" - "We knew him as one of the family - / like Tom, Tom, the Piper's son". These one-offs are as interesting as the more thematic pieces, keeping readers alert. The poet's ability with imagery and felicitous twists means that all the poems have something of worth. My favorite's "One Last Thing" - a deathbed scene that movingly avoids the clichés.

Other reviews

  • Andy Jackson (Dura)
  • goodreads
  • Tom Jenks (Parameter) (nothing in these poems is just itself ... If we can say that HappenStance has a house style, then D.A. Prince’s work exemplifies it)
  • Ian Collinson (Poetry Nottingham) (This is unashamedly feminine poetry, and none the worse for that)

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