HappenStance, 2010 £4.00
Reviewed by D A Prince, Nick Asbury and Ross Kightly
D A Prince:
Published first as a writer for children, Gina Wilson recognises the uneasy tension of childhood, the way it seeps into everything, and how it lasts throughout adult life. But she balances this with an understanding of the lyrical playfulness of a child’s imagination, and how word-play and rhyming are a comfort to adults who remember poems from childhood. So this collection has an appealing timeless quality, with the ghosts of poems from childhood just out of earshot.
The cover hints at menace: the black silhouette of scissors, heavy blades gaping wide to enclose a lump of stone, illustrating the childhood game that provides the pamphlet’s title. This game gives the framework for the opening poem—‘Siblings’ —with Brother Stone (“builds houses bashes brains in”), Brother Scissors (“too handsome too sly”) and Little Paper Sister (“soggy in rain/ crumples and tears”):
Ho ho says Brother Stone
Snip snip Brother Scissors
Write it down says Paper
how it is
From the outset Wilson shows that words are the way to survive, to understand. She balances this sibling conflict with the following poem—and there are a lot of similar dialogues in the careful placing of all these poems—a delicate lyric, ‘Song of the Unborn’ with its nature-based images of blossom, apples, ripe corn, berries and seeds, showing us a happier life linking with nature.
Men cause problems, especially fathers. In ‘The Way They Played’, the longest poem in the collection and one which appears autobiographical, Wilson describes her role as plaything between her mother and father. The first line— “Oh they liked playing games! They played with me a lot”—has Wilson’s finely-judged ambiguity, with the ‘game’ consisting of father, despite his wife’s warnings, taking his daughter too far out to sea, clinging to his slippery shoulder. It’s a cold, chilling poem, spoken by a child: the male strangeness of her father, her mother’s anxiety shown in reported speech, and the watchful isolation of the child. Facts are all the judgement we need, as in the final stanza of ‘Fathers’:
My real father gave me away without comment.
He went with me by taxi to the church.
Later, he didn’t stand up and make a speech.
He got someone else’s dad to toast the bride.
These end-stopped lines contrast effectively with the easy enjambment of the earlier stanzas where other, kindlier men encourage the growing child. And it is mother who stays the course, who is described in old age, in ‘She’s rich’—
but still the cardboard box
of beeswax, lavender wax, Brasso,
Silverdip, Windowlene, Brillo Pads,
I like that final ‘Vim’; it’s been a life of hard household work, and energetic pride in it, and still vigorous.
These poems are compact and muscular; every word works and earns its place. The blending of childhood and adulthood is achieved through Wilson’s skill in listening, and through what she describes in ‘Making Sense’:
I would be dull, my life a dim
drudgery of days
without the twinkling jesters
that skip along my ways,
the Wits of Sense whose riddle’s this:
Nothing is only what it is!
A reviving and satisfying collection.
I can't describe the tone and content of this beguiling pamphlet any more effectively than its back cover, which talks of the poet's "haunting ability to mingle adult and child voices until we see the two can never truly be separated. Here there is melancholy, mirth, mischief and rage."
I found all these things in the 25 poems simply and clearly presented inside. The
poet understands exactly how to tap into the enduring power of myth and folklore, using nursery rhyme rhythms and ballad-like devices (including who-am-I riddles and sing-song questions and answers)—but then introduces real psychological complexity through the subject matter and surprising deviations from the expectations she has established.
'Song of the Unborn' is a representative example:
At crack of dawn
when I am born
what will I be?
Blossom on a mother's knee.
When the sun climbs high
in a summer sky,
what will I be?
The topmost apple on the tree.
The poem carries on in this vein, building layers of symbolism and emotional weight, before ending, heart-breakingly:
And when it dies
and I close my eyes,
where will I go?
Deep in the ground with seeds that grow.
This kind of writing is much harder to pull off than Gina Wilson makes it look. The rhythm could cross the line from song-like to trite, the symbolism could shift from archetypal to hackneyed, the trick of setting complexity against simplicity could become transparent or predictable. These poems are none of these things—they're handled with great skill and grounded in emotional truth.
There is a recurring theme of threatening masculinity throughout the collection, represented in a series of increasingly unsettling father figures ('Fathers'), the "polished, poised and princely" peacock ('In Waiting'), and the brothers of the title poem: "Brother Stone big boy/ black hair long face" and "Brother Scissors clever sharp/ too handsome too sly".
In between them is Little Paper Sister, the poet who resolves to "Write it down . . . / how it is". She is the first in a series of counterbalancing female characters: the married women who "meet briefly and speak our parts/ so urgently that by the end / our cheeks are burning red" ('Married Women'); the old lady whose physical decline is matched by the creepy doll in her attic ('Sent Upstairs'); and the mother figure who, despite relative modern-day prosperity, continues to play the inherited role of domestic washerwoman—"Same creaking cartilage, same elbow-grease./ All hands to the plough. Many make light." ('She's rich')
Even from this brief sketch, it should be obvious that this is a collection of real psychological depth, which doesn't shrink from darker emotions and difficult subject matter. At the same time, there is a lightness of touch evident throughout, as well as some great comic timing—suffice to say 'The issue' should be printed out and pinned on the wall of the smallest room in Rupert Murdoch's house.
The place to start may be the first poem (‘Siblings’), the title poem that isn’t precisely a title poem, with “Brother Stone”, “Brother Scissors” and “Little Paper Sister”, where an aspect of the tone of the collection is set in the second stanza:
Brother Scissors clever sharp
too handsome too sly
Too snippy says Mother
This colloquial precision, refusing to take itself too seriously, but carrying in the context of the short poem such a load of significance, is for me one of the cardinal virtues of the collection.
Inevitably, one tends to have a favourite, a poem that appeals for a variety of reasons: ‘Avian’ with its description of the take-off and flight of a heron: “crick-necked, crook-shouldered [. . . ] / shaking out bony folds, cranking up his gear” is such a perfect description of my own bird of good omen that I am filled with genuine envious admiration.
Among many virtues in the collection is the richness of sensual imagery: the damson in ‘Dear Dan’, rubbed “till its blue-black lustre shone out/ like coal brought into the light”, the making of jam (and the cheating by tasting one uncooked so the tongue is “furred/ with rust and remorse”) until finally, with their “black coats split open/ and foam frothing pink” the poet finds the damsons are “staining (her) mind/ with indelible purple”.
A technical point, and one to refute the that-ain’t-a-poem-coz-it-dunt-rime school of thought, is that Wildon’s precision of language provides an object lesson in why these are poems of the highest quality, though I think only three of them use any form of overt rhyming, and in one case this is for comic effect—in ‘The issue’, about toilet tissue, where newspaper pages are seen as satisfactory in an emergency:
accustomed as they are
to handling it
Some pieces are nostalgic but edgily so (‘Privet’); others are very moving (‘Beyond Reach’ and ‘Where’) and there is also the one that knocks my favourite poem theory to bits, ‘Making Sense’, with its concluding line: “Nothing is only what it is!” which could be a mantra for any poet.
And so I end up with two favourites in this excellent collection, but they are struggling to hold off the rest of the field as we come round the final bend into the home straight. . . .