Acumen Occasional Pamphlets, 2009, £3.50
Reviews by Annie Clarkson, Eleanor Livingstone and Matt Merritt
This is a simply produced, neat little pamphlet, with a landscape photograph on the cover that didn’t appeal to me, but which does reflect the content and tone of the poems inside.
These are brief poems with an emotional simplicity. The poet writes of love, the natural world, dreams, and her growing awareness of death. Many poems are about love and have a simple awe about the world, small details that seem precious to the author. Barbara Cormack was a poet who appreciated nature, noticing the hedgerows, the tiny movements of birds. She captures these small details and conveys the pleasure she gained from them.
There is old-fashioned phraseology at times, “aloft” and “alas”, and some obvious rhyme. Also, a romanticism that is soft-focused:
O my darling, let me love you
like the rain.
But the emotion creates a tremble in her poems that is heart-felt. She tells us, “I cannot love a little” in the second poem, and I felt this statement reflected the understated longing in the work as a whole.
We already know from the introduction that the poet died from cancer some years ago, yet we discover this alongside her, as she is “adjusting myself to the grave”. I felt a quiet poignancy here. Despite feeling there were clichés and imagery that was not completely original, I enjoyed the sense of serenity, acceptance, and peace that accompanies the pain in these poems.
There are many readers who will find this pamphlet appealing. Not necessarily those who focus primarily on poetry as a craft, but certainly those who want to read the observations and responses of a woman who noticed what was around her, who conveyed emotion in a beautifully simple way.
Her last words are:
how long, how long
until this small red spark
burns itself out
and all is dark?
A moving end, I felt, to this interesting little pamphlet.
Born and raised in the USA but living in the UK for many years, Cormack wrote poetry throughout her life, but has only been widely published since her death from cancer in 2004.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, an acute awareness of mortality and a sense of being suspended somewhere between two cultures are the two all-pervasive themes in this collection, and Cormack handles them with no little skill and sensitivity.
‘Memories’, for example, touches on that outsider status, and closes with the excellent:
As always, there is an ache
for time I have not known
and I am homesick, who does
not have a home
nor lilacs to outlive me.
Cormack’s preferred style is a fairly pared-down free verse, but she uses internal rhyme well when she wants to, and the sense of things being kept just under control engendered by the sparse nature of the writing works especially well on the love poems, such as ‘Love Like Rain’ and ‘Free To Choose’.
The latter also highlights something of a weakness, which is a tendency to be a bit too literal with titles, while a liking for posing a lot of rhetorical questions also lets a few of the poems down a little.
In the end, though, Cormack is at her best when writing about:
a setting free
of memories that had served their time
but now must make their own way in the world.
The poem they come from, ‘For The Record’, is a fine examination of the whole business of preserving someone’s life through writing, with Cormack saying of her words that “to such frail forms do we entrust our immortality”.
The appeal of this collection, I think, is that the poet accepts the limitations of those frail forms, and works with them to make something that will last.
The month of March gets a mention in Barbara Cormack’s ‘For All Seasons’, and ‘Lilac Time’, but the cumulative effect of the poems in this collection is autumn moving into winter, a golden–into–grey melancholy building from poem to poem.
‘Decoy’ suggests we’ll need visual prompts (“dry stalks snapped from the hedgerow”) to remind us that summer has died, but by the time we get to ‘What the Aging Know’ a few pages on, November is already “soft and hard as snow”.
The penultimate poem, ‘Death and Life’, has a definite touch of Emily Dickinson about it, and another, ‘Landscape With Tree’, reminds me of Thomas Hardy. The speaker in the poem admires a hawthorn’s green berries, wondering if anyone will see them in autumn when they burn “beacon bright, like the rowan’s” after she and shepherds are all gone:
I should like to think some friend
will pass this way and look into the clearing
before the hawthorn has itself
gone for shearing.
The familiar nod to seasons passing and intimations of mortality (present in many of the poems here) is given added poignancy by a foreword explaining that this is a posthumous collection from a poet who—though she wrote throughout her lifetime—was not widely published before her death from cancer in 2004.
It’s hard to judge whether the poems here were all written during that illness. Many could just as easily have been penned when death was that faint figure on the horizon who waits for us all. However, in ‘So What’s New’, a poem which is quietly humorous about chronic neck pain, knowledge of the poet’s illness adds an edge to willful lines like these:
This is not the poem I meant to write
tonight, coffin straight,
adjusting myself to the grave.
Also included in the 32-page collection are some mature love poems addressed, perhaps, to the husband who wrote the foreword. ‘Free to Choose’ perfectly captures the intimacy of late night lovers, the poet waiting to speak love “into some empty moment of your sleep”; and another poem ends with the request to be allowed to love “like the rain”—nice, even though I don’t really understand what she means.
Then in ‘The Kitemakers’, hope rises for a time on thin string, borne up by love surely, or resilience of the human spirit, before preparing to plummet. Barbara Cormack’s poems might not be cheerful in an obvious way but there’s a wry self-knowledge about them that takes away from the gloom, and the well-observed nature images make this a soothing and reflective read.