I've been dipping into Greenfields for several weeks, returning to poems with
increasing pleasure. What's eluded me though is a clear view of the whole
book. I've been putting this down to my erratic reading habits but - flicking
through for a particular poem today - I noticed how much the book stops and
starts. It has nine sections (at least three of them published already as
separate pamphlets) and their title pages / blank versos make for frequent
breaks to the reading. And having spotted this, I'm altogether happier with
this stop-start structure.
It's not unlike the structure of the book's delightful final (single poem)
section, 'Open the paper window'. Each 'window' opens on a moment from family
Christmases over a lengthy period of time:
mirrors for a baby thirty-five years ago.
mirrors for a baby ten years ago
The moments are brief, out of context, and telling:
Try not to
electrocute yourself this time! They aren't sweeties!
and they're held together by that repeating phrase 'open the paper window' to
drive the poem on.
In the same way, each section of the book opens a window on a different
period of life and relationships: childhood memories in the poems of
'Frosted, Melted', his mother's death in 'Gentians', the end of a
relationship in 'Quilted Leather', the beginning of one in 'The Giant'. Yes,
these are subjects many of us write about. But Richard Price's poems touch on
them in two quite distinctive ways.
The first is that he doesn't address a subject head-on. Instead -
understanding memory's predilection for fragments and irrelevancies - he
gives space to what seem like condensed notes in the margin round the main
event: to the rain in 'The day before my mother's funeral', or the sound of a
lawnmower during her illness: 'An electric mower blows its nose'.
The second is that such unlikely characterisations as this mower and it's
nose come naturally to him. Even in more sombre poems, words play off each
other and fool around. And if you can't stand puns, keep clear - for Richard
Price is out to reclaim them and make you rethink their function in a line.
'Mall-practice'; 'this man-hole' (of the underground); 'Even at the stops / I
don't start' (groan); 'If they all breathe in at once / my ticket will
expire' - all these, from a random dip into the section 'Tube Shelter
Perspective'. It's this section that sports a lengthy footnote about the use
of a footnote in the poem, which
the reader's ignorance
to master the
In combination, the two (marginalia and wordplay) make for arresting, quirky
and vivid writing. Both of course serve a similar function, engaging a
reader's attention and yet at the same time distancing him/her by drawing
attention to the materials with which a poem's been fashioned. Even so,
there's a completely beguiling poem 'When the animals are freed' about (it turns
out half way through) a daughter's bedtime that opens, 'After she says I
don't love you / I could kill you'. So: much to enjoy, much to think about.
Jane Routh 2008