Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Smith/Doorstop Books, 2009  £4.00

Sphinx eight stripes

Reviewed by D A Prince, Hannah Eiseman-Renyard and Robin Vaughan-Wiliams

D A Prince:
You can recognise a Smith/Doorstop pamphlet immediately: small and uncluttered; single-colour dust-wrapper with a slight sheen; no text except title, poet and a barely visible logo. Inside, the same quiet elegance: white paper, unfussy layout; nothing to distract from the poetry. They are modest but confident.

Skylight was a pamphlet winner in the Poetry Business Competition 2008/2009, the second time Carole Bromley has achieved this distinction (the first was in 2004). Her poems sit well in the Smith/Doorstop format, and I read this collection with the pleasure that her poems always give: familiarity with her domestic interiors, sense of family (there are lots of children here), and a general sense of order, both in time and place. All this comes together in ‘Cut outs’, about photos of women cut from magazine advertisements by a child (a girl who, from the brand names in the poems, would be Bromley’s age), a sideways look at how expectations of life are accumulated:

     Important that he should be the taller of the two
     and she looking up, adoringly, or still with one hand
     on the Electrolux.

     They didn’t talk much, rarely ventured out,
     or asked the neighbours in. Just smiled their perfect smiles
     and waited for babies.

It works: the child senses the ideal is false, that there’s more to life than dreaming of New World ovens and Triplex grates, but cannot yet articulate what any alternatives might be. Bromley can, though. There’s ‘Auntie Joy’—“chalk to my mother’s cheese”; ‘Di’, who is “smiling in black and white” until the power of adult memory brings the faded photograph into vivid colour; the unnamed ‘you’ in ‘In another life’, where she explores the intense erotic charge of an imagined tryst, every detail sharp and distinct—

     I like to imagine you there in your green shirt
     lighting a cigarette, the quick, brave flare of it in the dark.

This haunted poem of never-was comes immediately after the title poem, ‘Skylight’, in which a woman, unable to sleep because of the sprawling lover next to her, stares up at the moon through a skylight:

     I lie in what’s left of the bed
     like a jigsaw piece in the wrong puzzle
     and watch the stars who don’t care
     staring back from another millennium.

No storm, no drama: just the everyday language showing the everyday stoicism. Bromley knows how to fit her poems together so that they have a continuing dialogue with each other, and in this pamphlet she is doing what she does best: sketching lightly and perfectly the details of small lives that could be hers, could be ours. Mine, anyway.

There are no surprises here—that isn’t Bromley’s way; instead, her consistently honest acknowledgement of how we live, and the language we use, shows how poetry, like love, can transform the shared routines of living.

Hannah Eiseman-Renyard:
When Bromley is good she is quirky, succinct, and has some rich images—and when she is weak she needs another draft and an ending.

The poems I liked best in this collection were the more structured ones. ‘Dads’ lists the many tasks and pieces of esoteric knowledge fathers had:

     They knew about wasps’ nests and beeswax
     and how to deal with headlice
     and the best place to bury a hamster.

There are seven stanzas on this theme, rounded off with:

     But they did not know what to say
     when the boy who said you were beautiful
     no longer wanted to know.’

The best pieces in this collection are—like this example—direct, and have the ring of experience to them. ‘The Year You Moved Out’ describes some fairly ordinary early adolescent experiences, but picks its details very well:

     They decided I’d be friends with Zibber,
     gave us cake, left us alone in the same room
     like an arranged marriage.

The tone here is just right—wry, brief, and encapsulating all the awkwardness and resentment of the situation, too. The title poem ‘Skylight’ was another highlight for me—with some very bold images—“I lie in what’s left of the bed/ like a jigsaw piece in the wrong puzzle”, though they both lacked a little in structure. Bromley tends to describe moments, but—like moments themselves—where they end isn’t always well-defined.

I thought the quality variable. Many of the poems read, to my mind, more like first drafts—one well-formed image bobbing about among reminiscences which clearly mean a lot to the author, but haven’t been defined or polished enough to be quite ready for show-and-tell.

Five of the poems riffed off an external piece of art—a song, a photograph or a painting. Personally I dislike this format, especially when there’s a cluster of them. Though I really enjoyed the poem ‘A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents after Diane Arbus’, the format still risks distancing a reader who doesn’t get the reference. Also reader knowledge of the piece of art can intrude on appreciation of the poem. In ‘The Lovers after Magritte’ Bromley describes a couple who went on an outing to put tablecloths on their heads for a little joke—but found the experience made them feel alienated. She did a good job, but reading it I couldn’t shake the image of Magritte’s mother drowned with her dress covering her—which was supposedly the reason for the painter’s faces-covered-in-cloth theme.

The poem ‘In Another Life’ irked me especially. Describing the lake the author writes “it’s something about the greenness./ All those greens/ upside down in the still blue water.” The “something about” adds nothing, while the “greenness” of the “greens” gives the impression of a limited vocabulary.

The penultimate stanza of the poem summed up what I see as the main problem in Bromley’s voice:

     It would have to be autumn;
     I don’t know why, maybe for the colours
     which are more intense for a while
     like lovers who are about to part.

While “lovers who are about to part” is a strong simile, and applies well to the relationship hinted at throughout the poem, this nugget is undermined by the timid “I don’t know why, maybe . . . for a while”. 

To me, the collection doesn’t hang together well. The poems alternate between the quite freeform painting-a-scene pieces and the more precise, structured poems (I much preferred these) which make stronger use of lines and stanzas such as ‘Dads’ or ‘A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents’. The collection is varied but I think a different order of contents would have strengthened this variation.

Robin Vaughan-Williams:
Reading Skylight is a bit like leafing through a vintage photo album full of lovingly framed shots, all with just the right amount of wear to signal their age. There’s something familiar about the scenes they show, as if they’re the kind of things that might have happened, and there’s a certain satisfaction to be gained from this recognition, as if it were one’s own memory being jogged.

At the same time, I began to wonder what the selection of scenes, or perhaps just their framing, had missed out. There was little to confound my expectations, to shake me from my reverie and convince me of the realism of these portrayals. The steady tone and regular pace of the poems suggest not flashes of memory, but memory that has been composed. The past has been expertly distilled into moments of significance, narrative resonance, and amusement, but the retrospective perspective tends to filter out the immediacy and involvement of the present.

The poem ‘Dads’, for example, begins with the stanza:

     They knew about watches and bicycles
     and polishing shoes, about drawing a fire
     with a sheet of newspaper.

Six more stanzas follow, listing various other things dads know about, from “wasps’ nests and beeswax” to “lighting rockets/ in milk bottles”. The list is diverse in its contents, and genuinely pleasing, yet provides no real surprises; I had the feeling it was confirming an already well-worn image of dads. The repeated assertions of what dads know builds up a suspense as we await the break in the pattern, the revelation of what it is they don’t know:

     But they did not know what to say
     when the boy who said you were beautiful
     no longer wanted to know.

The poignancy of what this is telling us seemed to me to be dulled by a sense of distance from the event.

Nevertheless, Skylight is an enjoyable read, and well written. Moments of romantic disappointment are often recounted with sympathetic humour, and there’s the refreshing wickedness of ‘Heading for the Hurst’, which begins:

     I needed a break so, halfway to Shropshire,
     I opened the train door and put my mother out,
     chucked her case after her and shouted
     I’ll be back for you on Saturday.

There are also some intriguing moments of strangeness, as in ‘The Lovers’, whose subtitle ‘after Magritte’ hints at a gentle Surrealist (and possibly repressed) vein in this collection. In the enclosed space of two youthful figures groping each other beneath white tablecloths, the involvement with the sit