They look quiet. But they’re not.
The language isn’t doing anything special. Or so you think. This one isn’t even about much, so far as you can tell. You read quickly, turn the page, and then . . .
Hang on. Read again. What was that?
A half-heard question. A voice you once knew. A forgotten world. Bottom of the pond. Sticklebacks and minnows.
I like this sort of poem, though what sort it is I can’t really say. Only that D A Prince writes them. They look quiet, but they’re not.
‘Soup’, for example. What kind of an opening line is this: ‘At the end of the month it’s often swede but even this’?
Austerity. Who wants to know? Swede soup, with not much else except ‘maybe that carrot dried out in the fridge’. I know that carrot. You pick it up and it bends in the middle. Maybe it’s the carrot that gets me. Or maybe it’s the parsley with ‘its winter-watery smell’. Winter-watery. Or the way another word out of context surprises: ‘The pepper cosies up.’ Cosies.
Oddly I’m seeing the vegetable drawer in the fridge downstairs, and thinking about my mother. There is a half pepper lurking, a red one. The phrase ‘waste not, want not’ comes to mind, and my mother saying it.
And then, though this is an austerity poem it slips into a rich slice of iambic pentameter, ‘a thicker warmth to insulate the house’. Maybe it’s a sort of sonnet, eked out. Here’s the whole of the last section:
Or when it’s leeks
down to half-price, and potatoes left
from weekend baking, or sweet parsnips, there’s
a thicker warmth to insulate the house
against hard times, rooted in winter, lasting
longer than you think.
And it does. It lasts longer than I think (I love the line-break after ‘lasting’). How many times have I gone back to this poem? Each time I find the bendy carrot, or the wilting parsnip, I remember it. Maybe it’s because it comes out of a world I know, making soup out of not much, taking care of the pennies so the pounds will take care of themselves (some chance!).
But maybe even without that, something in me would want that soup. Something thick and warm and ‘rooted in winter’. Maybe it’s about what winter means: comfort, warmth, cosying up, and not forgetting the chill outside.
Nothing special. Just a soup poem that sticks in my mind. But it isn’t the only one that works this way. How does D A Prince do it?
For example, there’s ‘His poems have been aired on BBC Radio’, which is on the book page for Common Ground in the HappenStance shop so you can read the whole thing there. I love this one too. The title makes it funny for a start, and funnier somehow because it’s ‘his’ poems, and because the contributor’s note must be true, and because you can see precisely how that phrase made the poet think about the word ‘aired’. Aired?
She continues quietly and domestically. ‘I bring them in: the sheets’ but this time it’s not sheets of paper, it’s the kind that come off the bed. And aren’t they lovely: ‘flecked with apple blossom’. You know this really happens? It did in our garden in spring on windy days. Little flakes of petal from the apple tree (to which one end of our washing line was attached) blew onto the washing. And though I said her language was often plain, ‘creased to a map of the wind’ is anything but. Cotton sheets, ready to be ironed, with their contours of creases.
I remember when my mother discovered nylon sheets. She was overjoyed. It was going to cut her ironing load by hours. For years our beds became nooses of nasty nylon, often in lurid colours: there was a lot of yellow. It wasn’t the same. Besides, ironing was good. It was the only time she stopped and stood still for long enough to talk to us.
And in the poem, the sheets have made the poet think about her mother, ‘loading the kitchen line each night, trapping / the coal’s last heat in pillowslips’. And that reminds me of the line in my grandmother’s kitchen – or actually the pulley, so you could hoik the washing up above your head and still eat supper on the kitchen table. Why does the past pull at us so?
But the poet is back into the present at the end. Herself, her mother, ‘Between us / we know all there is to know about airing’. These two women have put that ‘contributor’ in his place. Talk about airing poems. We could tell you a thing or two about airing. This is the old world of rivalries, the gender war, these men who think they know everything and need to be put in their place in a quiet (but not that quiet) way. And with humour. The smell of the sheets is a wine label (‘a grassy nose, hard gooseberries, / an undertow of nettles’) and this precisely describes the tone of the last line (‘we know all there is to know’).
The downside of publishing books of poetry is that you don’t get to review them yourself (you’re obviously biassed). So you don’t get to write in detail about the contents, even though you could write a book about each book. But Common Ground has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award (hurray!) and that gave me an excuse. There are 66 more poems in the book that I could write about, and you nearly got me on ‘A Real Cat Poem’ and ‘Ridding’ and ‘Not to Be Loose Shunted’ and ‘The Only View’ and. . . .
But there are other reviews in other places for you to read, especially Noel Williams on Antiphon, who notes the apparent quietness. And D A Prince is reading from the book for Saltmarsh Poets in Norfolk tomorrow evening, if you happen to be anywhere near.
I had better shut up now. There are chocolate eggs downstairs.