Reading through the night, Jenifer Smith
Garlic Press, 2015  £5.00

Poems that are really about me

Jenifer Smith does something I am a sucker for, which is having past memories and present co-exist. At one moment, you’re back in the past, but it’s as vivid as now. And then it is now, but some of the past has come back with you.

She often does long lines and, as the poem goes on, the lines may stretch further and further towards the right hand margin. So these are very fluid poems, and even where line-breaks make a deliberate point, they do it in a relaxed way, it never feels ‘arty’.

Aunty Louie caught my eye (in ‘Bungalow’), a memory from 1895, with the five-year-old Louie ‘on her father’s shoulders’ watching Queen Victoria arrive in Manchester. My mother had an Aunty Louie too, who might well have been there at the same time. The details about this Aunty Louie line up, assembled by the poet: her losses during the first World War; the ‘two pairs of dungarees with matching pullovers’ that she knitted for a teddy bear; what she used to say: ‘Cheeky beggar . . .Go on with you.

The detail is self-evidently true:

                                    When I use eggs as weights
to make a sponge cake, I think of her. My daughter
and my son bake cakes in the same way.

My mother’s Aunty Louie was a marvellous baker. She taught my mother some of her baking tricks. My mother taught me. So I know about eggs as weights, and this poem did that magical thing of being about me, entirely by accident, and the experience felt like a special gift.

But perhaps there are no accidents. The opening poem (‘Leeds to Manchester Piccadilly’ describes the train ‘filling up with people I know’ and all the people are long dead and also still present and correct. You know that feeling where you recognise the whole train, don’t you?

Maybe you don’t. But I did, so this was also about me:

Norman is manouevring his suitcase onto the rack and at any moment
Uncle Jack, not wearing his trilby today, might press a threepenny bit into my palm.

Helena Nelson