Fragments and Irrelevancies

Greenfields, Richard Price
[114pp, £9.95, Carcanet]

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:

     Bells and mirrors for a baby thirty-five years ago.

     Bells and mirrors for a baby ten years ago

The moments are brief, out of context, and telling:

     Open the window.
     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

     implies the reader's ignorance
     and the poet's inability
     to master the poetic form.
     Its riseÉ

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