So do you need to know about the poet’s life?
Well – sometimes – where the poem hinges on autobiographical detail – you might want to.
Alison Prince, whose first full collection of poems, Waking At Five Happens Again, has just appeared in book form, for example, has had a long and extraordinary life. And her poems draw on it openly. This is especially noticeable in the ones that refer to her experience as a child during the Second World War, to her own current health condition, or to her parents, in particular her father, an intensely musical man and son of a Jewish immigrant from Russia or the Ukraine – the grandfather Alison never met.
War, for children, is mysterious and frightening, but also exciting. If you grew up in the Second World War, the stories of the Great War were vividly present. Alison’s father was one of only two men from his battalion to come back physically unharmed from Ypres and the Somme. in her poem ‘Centenary’, she recalls his memory of a trench in Flanders:
A dead man’s hand, he said,
projected from the muddy wall,
useful to lean your rifle on.
This soldier-survivor met the love of his life, Alison’s mother, when she came back from nursing in France. Both of them had seen terrible injury and pain. But they got on with ordinary lives, except that they were far from ordinary, and never ever ‘soft’. Her father did well in his banking career. His aspiration to be a concert pianist was shelved, but he played every night in the front room, wearing an overcoat and hat if the fire wasn’t lit. When he forgot to draw the curtains, people passing by gathered at the garden fence to listen.
There were two children: first Alison and then, five years later, her brother Roderick. But another war loomed. Just before it started, Alison was taken to the island of Arran by her grandmother, and knew for certain that it was where she belonged (she lives there now), but then she was carted back to London and a war began. And the children played in bomb craters and survived. When Alison’s mother asked ‘Where have you been?’, the answer (in her poem ‘Kids’) was:
Hurling a Spitfire through the sky, mother.
Manning an ack-ack gun.
During wars, children get on, as best they can, with the serious business of play:
People in uniform banished our dream.
They had no time for us.
We were just kids,
though not what you could call children.
Alison miraculously escaped death when a bomb lodged in the rafters over her bed and failed to explode. But some of the neighbouring chldren were less lucky. ‘Wartime’ tells the story of two who ‘would have been old ladies now / except the Luftwaffe arrived’. They ran across the road to the public shelter:
A bomb killed one of them
but the other stumbled on.
Only inside the curtain
did the dim light show her hands
holding the spilled wreckage
of her abdomen.
During a war, death is no stranger. There it is at your right hand, sharpening the angle of the light. And this poet, now in her eighties, faces an assault again – not from outside, but from within. Problems with heart and lungs bring back that knife-edge, both literally and metaphorically. Past and present merge, a wild and beautiful blend, as the ‘heart beats in double time’ and ‘rests are not restful’. Here’s the second stanza of ‘Fast’:
The armies of perfection are most beautiful,
helmet feathers waving in the sun,
lances slanting like blown corn,
so good, so generous, so warm,
so oath-bound to serve life
even when life is off somewhere,
flirting outrageously with the dark-cloaked
who will play ‘The Last Post’.
Alison Prince is an artist (she can paint and draw beautifully) and a musician (she plays clarinet in a jazz band) and a story-teller (author of countless children’s tales) and a biographer (lives of Hans Christian Andersen and Kenneth Grahame) and a gardener (it’s in the poems) and a teacher and a mother and a grandmother and a poet. In her later years, poetry is the form in which she brings all the threads and threats of her life together, and the fusion is like no other. Waking At Five Happens Again, published jointly by Mariscat and HappenStance, is the book of a lifetime in which a whole life nestles, offering its stories and reflections, making its own sense out of the great puzzle of existence.
‘Centenary’, which begins with Alison’s father’s story about the dead man’s hand, ‘useful to lean your rifle on’, ends like this:
I knew him in another war,
crouched in another bolthole underground.
The hurricane lamp would flicker when
shock pulsed through the earth from a close bomb.
His hands, clamped round an empty beer glass,
trembled. We pretended not to see,
because there is nothing so dangerous
as being afraid.