Smiths Knoll, 2012 £4.50
Reviewed by Marcia Menter, James Roderick Burns and Fiona Moore
In the poem that gives this pamphlet its title (‘We make a video on All Saints, North Street for English Heritage’), Lydia Harris actually does play a corpse, and she blinks, ruining the shot. Nice metaphor for a first collection by a retired teacher in her early 60s: the poems look back, but the poet is very much Still Here.
Harris is good at condensing her memories into bits of imagery and snatches of dialogue. So while the pamphlet has a narrative arc (childhood, marriage, widowhood), what you’re most aware of is the poet’s tart sensibility. You get some fairly unromantic glimpses of her late husband, and you’re never entirely sure how well they suited each other. A poem about a Scottish vacation (‘The rolls arrive at Inchnadamph Hotel’) begins
She doesn’t say ‘I never should have married you’,
instead tries I’ve cleaned our tennis shoes.
Oh. So they’re not happy. But when those eponymous rolls arrive, they “brim with themselves”, and the butter is gorgeous, and there’s marmalade. “The day’s a swing-boat, red plush seats, a fringe of gold./ He’s helped her in,/ pulled the rope to make it rise.” It feels like a honeymoon poem, though she doesn’t come out and say so. The next poem is ‘I couldn’t ask if he was glad he married me’, which contains these lines:
He found me a wooden necklace.
Its clasp a plug cored from a bead
then knotted to the string’s other end.
When he pushed the core into the hollow, it held.
That’s pretty deft. Most images from the marriage are of this homely sort. “Sometimes I’d find corn plasters inside your socks/ caught by the gluey stuff that stuck them to your skin”, she writes (in ‘Identifying features’). After a while I was reminded of a line from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’: If that’s not love, what is?
Mind you, I had to read these poems a few times before they let me in. Often the narrative is so condensed it becomes obscure. It’s a fine thing to pare down your language, but if you pare too far, you run the risk of cutting the reader out.
James Roderick Burns:
Glad Not to be the Corpse is, frankly, infuriating: an almost even mixture of exquisite, sun-bright lyrical moments—in pin-sharp phrasing—with poems that fall flat, or even run out of petrol, half way through their journey down the page.
First the sun-flares, in the order I encountered them:
The day’s a swing-boat,
red plush seats, a fringe of gold.
He’s helped her in, pulled the rope to make it rise.
.....(‘The rolls arrive at the Inchnadamph Hotel’)
The Humber broadens out to hold the sky
I bought my first from the repository
kept by the Sister with the artificial eye
He’d say, Here’s a bit I never knew,
as if he were a blind accordionist
and someone had fitted an extra key
There are more. Some are embedded in poems which are themselves tight, both conceptually and in their language (‘Cumbrian cottage interior’, ‘Lice-infested sea trout’), and this happy confluence breeds delight.
But many of the intervening poems begin with promise then rapidly deflate. ‘Archbishop Accepted Frewen remembers his wife’, for instance, does just that: “Under the blue tester at Lichfield/ he’d lifted her breasts”. Then the next eleven lines add much less interesting detail to a thin, incomplete catalogue of remembrance.
‘Two strides from the kitchen door and the same age as the bungalow’ (which may or may not be intended to read like a line from an estate agent’s catalogue) follows this pattern, as does ‘We make a video on All Saints, North Street for English Heritage’ and ‘ I lived in a bed-sit on the District Line’. These poems don’t seem to proceed from the pen of someone who can capture grief so movingly, so arrestingly, comparing it to a diseased fish that will not go away “like the child/ whose grave/ is somewhere/ he can't say”.
Harris has a sensitive ear and sharp insight, but it seems to me these are displayed only intermittently in this pamphlet.
I often don’t notice the contents page of poetry books. This one, however, has some eye-catching titles, long and strange: ‘Two strides from the kitchen window and the same age as the bungalow’, ‘The Jarretts’ farm and the one my father made’. The latter (first poem in this pamphlet) juxtaposes a scene from real life (so to speak) with the toy farm, a couple of whose characters seem to be saying things on behalf of the real life people.
my farmer wears a moustache
but I never see him. He calls from inside,
You don’t know how hard it is to stay here.
The pond’s a mirror I could drop through.
I like this idea, and it is subtly expressed. But I can’t make the connections between the two worlds, because I can’t match the people.
In ‘We make a video on All Saints, North Street for English Heritage’, whose first line is also the pamphlet’s title, people are again not what they seem. At the end it turns out that the narrator is the corpse:
Above my head the fourth angel lifts a trumpet.
The crew shoots the sunlit side of my face but I blink.
They have to set it up again.
This nicely sends the reader back to the beginning to re-read the scene from a floored corpse’s perspective.
The situations set up are often intriguing; I don’t always get them. Important things happen, or are felt, in the interstices of an everyday life full of surreal detail. The language is precise with plain words used to good descriptive effect, as in ‘Oxygen mask’, one of several moving poems of love and loss:
However deep your breaths
they only scrape the surface
of the afternoon you’re balanced on.
What I’m not sure about is the poems as poems. The line breaks do their work, but sometimes I end up wondering, would this be as good in prose?—and thinking the answer may be: yes. Most poems have the flatness of tone that’s found in prose poems. Usually, the ones that hold my attention do so because of the set-up; they don’t get my auditory imagination going. An exception is ‘Cumbrian cottage interior’, with its repetitions and rocking rhythm:
who isn’t a woman, sits next to the cradle with her hands in her lap.
In this dark room, which isn’t a room