Lives that have a claim on us
The Way We Came, Angela Topping (64pp, £7.99, bluechrome)
In hope of avoiding accusations of partiality, I have to say at the start that though this book contains an acknowledgement of me as Angela Topping's 'sternest critic and dear friend' and though there is a quotation on the back cover from a review I wrote of her last collection, The Fiddle, as well as a poem addressed to me about a quarter of the way in, I will try to write about it as I would any other sent for review. I admit it might be difficult, simply because I have seen nearly all of the poems at different stages in their making before and, as her 'sternest critic', have had a hand in helping to shape them. However, seeing them in the context of a printed collection (her third book) has allowed for a change of perspective. For one thing you see how carefully the poems have been arranged so as to feed into or act as confirmations of one another other. Yes, of course my responses are to a degree governed by recognition but I now have the very odd but pleasurable feeling that I am seeing the poems for the first time. They have attained their autonomy, they stand up on their own two feet, have gained their independence. Angela Topping's poetry is now fully-fledged: her poems are as finely-crafted as she can make them - the products of always being in quest of perfection, the elusive only-words in their only-order. They are, in a word, self-assured, the genuine article. At the very least I can vouch for the commitment and the hard work that has gone into producing them.
Connectedness is a major theme running through the book. There is always a sense of sharing or wanting to share, sometimes with affecting John Clare-like directness as here in 'Morning':
Lifting a lid off the world,
the first fingers of light
intrude upon the sky.
The faint sun is spying,
banishing distant stars,
undoing the pins of night.
Crickets wake to creak
their greeting to the day -
another night survived.
Slugs refill their silver tracks,
Small birds compete
in raucous noise.
Pink worms wriggle in their soil.
You should have been there
holding my hand:
Adam and Eve at the gates of Eden,
taking one last look.
In Topping's poems we find worlds overlapping or yearning to: she explores, feelingly but never sentimentally, how the past impacts on love and friendship - the lives of those others that 'have a claim on us' (children, spouse, parents, friends), as well as asking what knowing connection we can have with the future (for example how the things we do become or will become the memories of our children):
My mother did it this way
you'll both say to hampering audiences
as you mix with milk and deftly press your knives.
[from 'Passing It On']
There is in her poems an energising tension between what can be imagined and what is real:
Snow remakes the world for however long it lasts
until the tension goes out of it. As childish
as innocence before grown-up boots stamp it out.
[from 'Searching for Snow']
The overriding concern, the one that holds the collection together, is time, the world of one's old selves. The title of the collection suggests two people looking at a map and tracing the journey they have just completed or had once undertaken. Evidence of past events is part of the substance of the here-and-now in that we are the sum total of all our experiences and are reconnected with them through memory - 'secrets and memories,/things we can't bear to discard', the things we rediscover in old boxes or in the attic, old letters that 'unfold themselves in remembering hands'. In a desire to accommodate the past, she ruefully asks 'Why can't time fold back upon itself?' knowing full-well that most of us live lives of quiet acceptance holding on to our precious box of Hardyesque memories which may well combine both hurt and pleasure, things
to be taken out, relived -
how it felt to be there that one time
how the sun shone on the river, how
we laughed and cried and what was said.
[from 'Facing Up To It']
Here, as elsewhere, Topping is good at saying things very simply and directly. She is also fully capable of producing striking images: for example a tumbledown washhouse in Haworth is 'nibbled by ivy'; in a poem about the Titanic 'a suitcase is lifted/like a drowned dog, its body leaking' and 'the railings' fur of barnacles/outlives the stoles of women'; elsewhere she tells us how an old broken watch 'wears whatever face it can' or how she listens for the 'creak of panic' in the lungs of her father as he finds cycling more and more difficult. (The poems about her mother and father are especially moving). She is accomplished formally, can offer you a sonnet without you noticing on a first read. And she knows how to end poems tellingly, sometimes involving you in what (as in the poem Morning quoted in full earlier) you think may be simply descriptive and then ending with something unexpected. In 'Taffeta', after what feels like a private reverie, we find the lines
You took me home from the ocean
that summer and married me.
or again in 'Dialectic' where she contemplates the 'love of angels' and then, in contrast, goes on to personify lust as the devil whose
...eyes burn with desire when he makes you
Java Lava coffee, offers Turkish delight.
He cannot marry you. None of this is real.
The Way We Came is a book full of strong finely-sculpted poems. It is a attractively-produced book with a beautiful photograph of Stickle Tarn on the cover.
The opening poem Translate This dedicated to Anne Stevenson exhorts us to
as soon as books open, voices command,
babbling of hungers lying in the dark.
The babbling hungers are turned into commanding voices asking us to listen. I am reminded of a poem by Norman Nicholson in which he says 'Come closer. I've something to tell.' These are poems for sharing.
© Matt Simpson 2008