HappenStance, 2008, £4.00

A couple of the poems in this collection take fairy tales as their starting point before veering into something darker, or more adult, and that’s a good indication of the ground that Anne Caldwell’s poetry occupies—successfully treading a fine line between an almost childlike joy in the world around us, and the pain that is always lurking not too far away.

Caldwell’s style is straightforward and understated, letting precise language and a subtle music draw the reader in. That done, she unleashes an array of unflashy but consistently surprising imagery. Chimneys become dark throats, a whole house becomes a woman’s body, but there’s no temptation to overplay her hand.

A loose but distinct narrative thread runs through the chapbook, too, giving even the simplest of pieces extra resonance, and although this might be a story that has been told before—childhood, marriage, birth of a child, breakdown of a relationship—the freshness of the language carries it off. Caldwell is especially good on how our emotional lives attach themselves to our surroundings—every creak and groan of the house takes on significance.

Throughout it all, there’s an awareness by the poet of how language can pervade everything. The deeply sensual title poem starts by describing slugs (not exactly beloved of poets over the centuries, I reckon) as “pure tongue”, before closing with:

They have criss-crossed my lino
all night, wound together like a nest of snakes
to smear the soles of my feet
with their silver calligraphy.

I print the whole house with desire.

Elsewhere, she’s fond of imperatives, with a number of poems offering instruction or giving advice, but the tone is never hectoring, so she’s an engaging guide.

The neat production and excellent cover design are HappenStance trademarks—so is the hugely readable, yet multi-faceted poetry within.

Matt Merritt

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