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.

Wednesday 31 January 2018

"In the glasshouse" by Helen Tookey (Happenstance, 2016)

Poems from The Compass, PN Review, Shearsman, etc.

A restless intelligence is at work here. Even when I felt I didn't understand a poem I often liked it. Those that didn't appeal to me still interested me - they seem carefully constructed even if their purpose remains a mystery. I can imagine other people liking them.


Water appears in nearly every poem ("Like the Sorrows" has tears and a boat, "Mow Cop" has a watermelon - only the final "Sudley Field (Dusk)" is completely dry). There are specific links between poems (e.g. "Heptonstall" begins with "They are always speaking of beauty in this valley". The next 2 poems are entitled "beautiful error" and "Rheidol Valley"). Most striking however is the pervasive dream/Jungian imagery. I imagine the most common images could be classified as follows -

  • paths connecting places
  • boundaries between something and something else. These can be crossed - e.g. beaches
  • boundaries between something and nothing. These can't be crossed - e.g. cliffs
  • places to be - gardens
  • places of transformation - ponds

"sea" and "wood" are the wilder, more infinite analogues of "pond" and "garden". "Jitties" are more confusing paths. In "Celandine" there's a path around a wood. Between the path and wood is an impenetrable hedge. Ah, there's a stile to the wood. In the wood is a clearing where there's a pool. In the dark water a naked man keeps swimming down. He's nameless. There are little flowers by the path and round the pool. The ending is "Only the small yellow flowers are named. The flowers are celandine". The impenetrable border and the border of no return around the pool are indicated by nameable beauty in contrast to the nameless body disappearing into the depths. The flowers are all we can know. Celandine is referenced in several pieces of literature, according to Wikipedia.

"Family Affair" also brings together some earlier themes - "This is the garden on the cliff, and this is the path". Later, "In the garden, the ponds are scummed with algae, the glasshouse doors hang askew".

"Speke Hall" is packed with the same family of images - path, woodland, pond - this time being described to accompany the walk of a couple trying to make it up.

Flesh sometimes merges into these symbols from nature - into water or soil ("if you put out your hand and the earth were to take it" (p.17) "Press fingers to dry earth" (p.28)).

I can't draw any conclusions from all this, except perhaps that there's an interest in the moment of transformation when there's no turning back and as yet no consequences; and an interest in the visible entrance to places of invisible change - event horizons.


In an interview she says "I really enjoy using found text as a source for poems. For me, it’s a way of getting hold of types of language that I wouldn’t be able to generate for myself ... Sometimes I collage things together from different sources ... but probably more often I use some sort of fragmentation ... It’s partly about trying to bypass your own censoring, to allow a certain amount of chance and free association; but of course there’s always a process of selection and arrangement at work as well."

Repetition, fragmentation and discontinuities all help disrupt linear narrative, tempting readers to see through the cracks and connect at a more symbolic level - as it says in "Speke Hall", "none of these things mean much in itself    only that we are seeing them together"

  • Repetition - examples include "Like the Sorrows" (33 lines each starting with "Like"), "beautiful error" and "Rheidol Valley" (where the last 2 lines are very nearly repetitions of the first 2), and "At the Ponds" (which begins with "She takes you to the ponds", then we're told about bodies underwater. The final section begins with "Well? she says, and you remember, back, at the castle, over the wooden castle" then repeats much of the earlier material using the same phrases).
  • Fragmentation - "Rain Script" is a scattering of words. "Like the Sorrows" would be too, were "Like" removed.
  • Discontinuity - "Prairie" flicks between 2 viewpoints. "Speke Hall" flicks between found text and narrative. "Jitties", by lacking punctuation and line-breaks, makes readers repeatedly back-track and re-parse.

Individual poems

I liked the first poem, Glasshouse. It begins/ends with "in the glasshouse we are all listeners/ we all make confessions/ the air alive as rain whispers tell us ... and the glass will hang always in its perfect instant/ complete still but fractured utterly". She wrote elsewhere that "fundamentally it’s about that tension between wanting or needing to change things about yourself or your life, but also the dangers and difficulties associated with that". I liked the second poem "Prairie" too, and "Speke Hall". Not so "Jitties" (no punctuation or line-breaks) or "Happy Valley, Cromer" (don't know what it's meant to do), or "Rain script" (too fragmented for me), or "Poem for Carola" (too plain, too many dreams). "Celandine" is attractive. "Family Affair" is wordy - deliberately, no doubt, though "We feel always the presence of their recent departure - an abdication we cannot account for" could have been shorter, and the concept of a departure having presence makes me think too hard.

Other reviews

  • Jessica Traynor (Sometimes the spaces between are the site of loss, as well as becoming.)
  • Marion Tracy (There’s a repeated theme of unease often expressed with images of water and people underwater ... ‘Celandine’ – my favourite poem of the collection.)

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