HappenStance, 2011, £4.00
Reviewed by Richard Meier, Paul Lee and Kirsten Irving:
Although these poems describe the various presences and activities of ‘the dead’, it is—as the title suggests—not really deadliness but a certain aliveness which pervades this pamphlet:
.......The dead have unzipped their tongues
.......and are washing them in an old zinc bath.
The poems provide plentiful detail to bring ‘the dead’ to life. For example:
.......They’d prefer their own cutlery—
.......the fork with the ear of corn on the handle,
.......the spoon slightly larger than a teaspoon
.......for their small mouths’ sake.
In ‘Carrying on’, however, the poet asks:
.......Maybe I shouldn’t write a whole book
.......about the dead . . .
But while I don’t think there’s anything wrong necessarily with writing a whole book about the dead, I think for it to be wholly successful the writing needs to be a little more generous towards the reader. Who are ‘the dead’? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But some of the details seem to suggest something actual and historical:
.......I can’t re-plump the little graves
.......of their pillows
.......They shy away from the new kettle and its plug
.......which they’d dismantle if they dared.
Elsewhere, however, the characteristics attributed to ‘the dead’ seem somewhat arbitrary and hence ‘the dead’ seem hard to know, to get hold of, somehow:
.......They hire themselves out to angels:
.......shift pianos, run errands to the fishmonger,
.......teach a bit of history
..............(‘To keep awake’)
That said, the pamphlet as a whole does say something powerful and arresting about loss, and its long perspectives. For my money though, the best poem in the pamphlet, by some way, is the final piece, ‘Still here’, which best bridges the unknowable between the living and the dead. Moving effortlessly between the different planes, it seems to me all the more tangible, more moving for its directness and particularity:
.......He still has his soul. It appears no one else wants it.
.......It’s fluttering in his chest like a dodgy heartbeat,l
.......like ginger shortbread bubbling in the oven.
I began, and ended this book unsure of Jennifer Copley’s intention with it? Was it an extended flight of whimsy, a conceit that took wing? Was it a (playful) exploration of our mortality, a way to blunt its sting? Or was I having my leg pulled, albeit gently? Was it none of these, all, or some? I opted for the second of these, whilst acknowledging the vein of whimsy, and that I might be wrong.
Why should intent matter to me? Well, these 24 poems describe an encounter with, and a haunting by, the dead. It is all credit to the poet’s intelligence and skill that this is not the ghoulish and morbid read it might otherwise have been. However, this is not to deny its surrealism, and occasional disturbing moments. “The living should not be afraid of the dead”, the first poem announces, so the narrator “brought them home.” The dead turn out to be not dissimilar to us, though stranger and more than a little childlike:
.......Their cooperation depends
.......on whether there’s a ‘p’ in the month
.......or they’ll dump bones, nail clippings, phlegm
.......just about anywhere.’
As in this example, from ‘The dead take a lot of persuading’, Jennifer Copley’s writing throughout is both fluent and a model of lucidity. She also has a remarkable talent for logical line endings, an important element of free verse. She doesn’t use poetic devices, other than the line, and regular stanza form in most of her poems. She does, however, commit not one, but two similes in her final poem, 'Still Here':
.......My father stands in the garden [. . . ]
.......He still has his soul. It appears no one else wants it.
.......It’s fluttering in his chest like a dodgy heartbeat,
.......like ginger shortbread bubbling in the oven’
Overall, the collection charmed me, when I might easily have been repelled. What persuaded me of serious intent was the following, from ‘Soap’:
.......The longer they are dead,
.......the more the unknowable gets bigger
.......and they shrink inside its fist.
Jennifer Copley's sequence, in which the dead, like abandoned dogs, show up at the speaker's house, takes the reader along as an intimate companion. As the visitors upset the life of their polite host, these poems, like brief diary entries, are written quietly, conspiratorially, almost as if they don't want to disturb or shame the dead and their clumsily alien ways.
The claustrophobic feel of the collection is well-sustained. Although there are hints of both the speaker and the dead leaving the house, much of the action takes place inside, the dead prodding and tinkering with the organised environment. The order of pieces is well chosen: 'Electricity', which features the visitors comically baffled and afraid of the kettle, is set against 'Snow', an understated, eerie fairy tale, in which the group side against one of their own, who offers the landlord a child to hold. The others warn: “Don't take it [. . .] It will turn to ice, never let go.” This splitting apart of the group is rare in Living Daylights—often they are simply referred to by their shared state and speak or think as a homogenous bunch.
An attempt to bring in outside narrative, 'The six swans', is a slightly awkward reference to the fable of the same name. For anyone who knows it, the piece feels a little too like a straight retelling with a smidge of “the dead”, and doesn't really fit in the sequence. A wryness reminiscent of Luke Kennard also slips in (“I feel uncomfortable/ admitting I sometimes can't tell them apart”) but avoids direct mimicry through the balancing presence of poignant or gruesome straight pieces. These include the touching 'Departure' and the grisly 'Blown off course', in which the speaker remembers gouging out a painting's eyes as a child, only to be faced, years later, with its subject, one of the dead.
Indeed, this range of moods, straying from the farcical (“A visitor calls so I bundle the dead/ into the study”) to the dreamlike (“by way of a silver bridge across a river./ They say they heard me crying for help”), makes up in part for the similar structure and pace of the components in this sequence. It would have been interesting to see Copley shake things up a little with some raised tempers or rhythmic wordplay—the whole adventure seems very calm and level and, if the tenants are really as childlike as they are portrayed, some parental frustration or outright conflict could have added a spot of pepper to this smooth soup.