Prole Books, 2011 £4.50

Sphinx seven and a half striperReviewed by Niall Campbell, Gina Wilson and D A Prince

Niall Campbell:
Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare is a curious chapbook of poems of loss, and poems of the fantastical, as suggested in the title.

To begin with the unusual: four poems are concerned with Nan Hardwicke and her transformative powers. These transformations are an interesting poetic device— replete with suggestions of liberation, often eroticised, as in the title poem: “I slipped/ into the hare like a nude foot/ into a glorious slipper” or “And what a shock those proud men got/ to see an old one like myself, panting/ on a bed of straw” [‘Nan Hardwicke is Hunted in the Form of a Hare’] There’s definitely something interesting going on here. And poetically there are some fine lines:

I warmed myself on her frantic pulse and felt the draw
of gorse and grass, the distant slate line
at the edge of the moor. The air span diamonds  
out of sea fret to catch across my tawny coat.
.....(‘Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare’)

I really liked the second line—“gorse and grass” —followed by that upsetting of the rhythm with “distant slate line”, before slipping back into pattern for the third line. That’s quietly brave stuff.

However, for me, the longer poem, ‘Scrying’, falls a bit flat. It too often relies on the narrative to propel the poem rather than fine rhythm. In fact, some of the lines can be plain and quite uneven, as in the opening five:

He came to me in the tea leaves
and wouldn’t let me alone.
I’d drained my cup and turned it
counter-clockwise on the saucer
and there he was.

These lines, it seems to me, do not do enough. They show little of the patterning or ingenuity seen elsewhere. For a seven-page, 205-line poem (which dominates the pamphlet), the opening needs to do more to draw the reader in.

The remainder are poems that are grief-laden and raw, many dealing with the death of a newborn. Personally, I found they often gained from their partnering with the fantastical, as if one were an escape from the sorrowful reality of the other. Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, though not perfect, is a complicated, interesting, often melodic pamphlet.

Gina Wilson:
Wendy Pratt’s collection is an account of her experience of the loss of her new baby, and her endurance of grief; it also addresses the impact of this loss on her husband and their relationship.

The sequence interweaves lyrical verses with narratives in the voice of the author’s alter ego, a witch called Nan Hardwicke, but themes of desolation, darkness and foreboding echo throughout.

The first poem, ‘How to Find Spaces to Lose Things in’, with the same six words coming last in the lines of each stanza, sets the tone and provides a key to the whole sequence. Five of the words are nouns but, tellingly, the sixth is the adjective    ‘‘broken’’. A tension builds up from the very word ‘‘Lose’’ in the title, through numerous admonitions to ‘‘notice’’—‘‘the shadow’’, “the one bead that is broken’’, ‘‘that one of your nails is broken’’, ‘‘that the world is broken’’, until, by stanza five (much more direct in structure and language than those preceding), we become aware of the true nature of the brokenness that is the subject of this book.

However, halfway through stanza six, there’s a significant turning-point where suddenly it seems ‘‘you can fix yourself’’, so that, by the end, we have, ‘‘notice you are not broken.”

The ensuing poems demonstrate different brokennesses and attempted fixings (often evoking images buried in the first poem). Pratt takes on the form of a hare to escape from pain into a world of ‘‘gorse and grass’’ (‘Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare’); she imagines fleeing by car ‘‘across the moor’’ (‘A Week on Friday’).

But she returns to her grief repeatedly, sometimes through identification with others (‘The Duchess of Devonshire Gives Away Her Bastard’,  ‘Philippus Minor 237-249 AD Sculpt. 3rd cent. AD’), decrying fantasy and escapism, even in ‘Bag’ (ostensibly humorous reflections on a plastic bag blowing in the wind):

Don’t leave me now, for imaginings of flight.

The penultimate poem, ‘Scrying’, is a lengthy narration by Nan Hardwicke of her final confrontation with ‘‘the curse’’—worst fears and recriminations that have built up between her and the witch finder ‘‘who’s a witch himself.’’ Pratt’s account of this cathartic clash clears the way, quite suddenly, for the last poem, ‘Equinox’, where she expands an image of peace after storm:

Now the wind has blown you back to me.
And here, in the lifeboat of our brown settee,
you rest against my chest

This is a brave, painful collection, raw in places but with memorable, poignant images.

D A Prince:
Common sense says this pamphlet shouldn’t work. In only twenty pages of poetry two large themes co-exist: death at birth of the poet’s only child and a narrative sequence about the witch Nan Hardwicke. Common sense says It ought to be too much for one small pamphlet to contain. Common sense might suggest two pamphlets, less contrast. Common sense would be wrong.

It works because despite the apparent clash of subject, Pratt understands how to write poetry that shows how grief needs the escape of story-telling, especially shape-shifting supernatural story-telling. We aren’t given the source of grief immediately but the opening sestina, ‘How to find spaces to lose things in’, builds up enough hints of unease to establish the groundwork of loss. For once the circling obsessive line endings work: they support the personal disorientation that transforms itself into strategies for survival. It is followed by the first of the four Nan Hardwicke poems, the pamphlet’s title poem, direct, sensuous and rooted in the physical world:

I slipped
into the hare like a nude foot
into a glorious slipper.

The woman’s body, tucked into the hare’s shape, is alive to “her frantic pulse and felt the draw/ of gorse and grass” but just as we are eager for more, Pratt brings us back, to the bathroom of her “ex-council house paradise” and the faint results of a pregnancy test, eagerly taken a day too early. The ending (“She was always too tiny/ and too slow. I’m glad we didn’t know it then”) acknowledges the memory of hope and excitement, placing it alongside the subsequent grief.

Nan Hardwicke, hunted and lamed, user of the scrying glass, outsider, sharing her life with a cat (her familiar), is a vivid creation. I feel she’s a story Pratt pushes herself into to escape the death and funeral of her daughter, just as Nan pushes herself into the hare’s body. It takes a confident writer to pull this off in so little space, and Pratt achieves it magnificently

As a pamphlet this would be better for more space; the poems are well laid out but there isn’t a blank page between these covers, and the poems feel hemmed in by the title page, biography, preface, contents, acknowledgements etc. But Prolebooks is a new publisher and still testing what will work. For them, and for Wendy Pratt, this is an impressive start.