Smith/Doorstop, 2013     £5.00Sphinx eight striper

Reviewed by Richie McCaffery, Hilary Menos and Fiona Moore

Richie McCaffery:
For a collection in which shadows and shades play a part, Emma Danes’ poems are crisp, lucid and illuminating. Their small scale belies their depths and undercurrents of loss, parenthood and aging, and while the writing brings light, the poems are framed within darkness, both literal and existential. In ‘Violins, 1940’, for example, we see music, voice and creativity surviving through the black-outs of war:

They came through blacked out streets,
voices damped with velvet.

[ . . .]

Melody swirls like dresses
of parachute silk.

Dust and rubble loosen
from under her tongue.

Although the shadows with which the poet deals can seem troubling, Danes’ message is a life-affirming one. In ‘Physio’, the speaker notes that even with injury “there comes an elegance – / a poise to the dance, / all colours of the sun.”

These poems haunt not only with recurring thoughts of death or nightmare, but also with the piercing power of images memorably rendered into words. In ‘My Other Lives’ the speaker watches the sheep coming off a mountain, going willingly from a barren freedom to food and captivity on the farm:

All this time
they spent their hunger
hefted among dips and shadows.
Now they funnel
as one mob down the lane.
They don’t look up.
All night I hear them.

Much of this collection draws its energy from a tension between the poet’s desire for compression/precision and her need to disclose something emotive and insightful. The poems unravel in the mind of the reader to occupy larger vistas than their pithy forms suggest. This mixture of sparseness and resonance leaves the reader longing for more, for poems like ‘Wedding Quilt’:

We sleep under twenty four Ohio Stars,
a quiet company of triangles and squares.

[ . . . ]

There’s a snapshot of the young quilt when I fold
back a corner. Blues are gentler now, yellows safe.

On the hidden side, our stars are lines of dashes.
in the dark I feel their code break on my skin.

Hilary Menos:
In Dress of Shadows Emma Danes has a group of six or so poems which explore territory familiar to every parent – sleep training, a child waking with nightmares, a trip to A&E – the routine terrors of having and loving children. This is a well-traveled path, but she approaches it with intelligence, precision and some flair. ‘Notice’ explores the impact of redundancy on a family.

                                              Next day
the shower is blocked again and there are children
asking for bacon. Everything is the same

and everything has shifted a little
to the left.

My favourite of this group of poems is ‘Letting go’, which, in five neat couplets, describes the process of watching a child grow up in terms of bowling a cricket ball, “eyes // on the wicket, full swing through then / ease, that slight angling away.”

The second poem in this pamphlet, ‘17’, won the Hamish Canham prize in 2011 for the best members’ poem published in Poetry News. It describes Danes’ move from London to Cambridge and the house she and her family left behind, a house “shy-on / to the street, inadequate fence, / blind corners”. The house, number 17, resists habitation, bristling with “splinters and snagged nails” and longing to be empty, “tethered /behind the bus stop in the shade / of a constancy of trees”. At last the family slip out “between the teeth of the lock we’d fitted”. It has been suggested that this is a submerged narrative of loss and mourning, and there is certainly a sense of a family trying to woo, placate and adapt to the house, but I don’t see loss or mourning. The original poem, printed on the Poetry Society website, ends

In the park, no widowed swan guards
the bruise of her reflection.

This is ominous, and certainly suggests more than wry relief at a successful removal from grimy London. But I notice that in Dress of Shadows Danes has removed the word ‘bruise’ from the last line. This seems to me to flag up the weakness in this and some of the other poems in the pamphlet where Danes injects some nebulous dark meaning at the expense of the clarity of the poem. For example in ‘Wedding Quilt’ – another beautifully turned set of five couplets – she uses a patchwork quilt as a metaphor for a marriage:

Twenty years on, where hems have softened, stitches
still bind cleanly, show only the slightest fray.

There's a snapshot of the young quilt when I fold
back a corner. Blues are gentler now, yellows safe.

So far so lovely, but the last couplet brings in an image of the stitching on the underside –morse code, we guess – and then takes this idea yet further into code-breaking:

On the hidden side, our stars are a line of dashes.
In the dark I feel their code break on my skin.

In the space of a few words we go from long-lived, un-frayed, safe and gentle marriage to . . . what? a covert message? the beginnings of breakdown? This is too quick for me, and there is nothing in the earlier part of the poem to suggest or support this reveal, if that's what it is. Danes clearly has an abundance of tools in her poetic kitbag but she needs to practise a little more of what she preaches in ‘Letting go’, and allow her poem to find its own natural end.


Fiona Moore:
Dress of Shadows contains twenty short, spare poems. Each takes the reader into the interstices between moments of daily life, and may cause a shiver of recognition. This is easier to illustrate with a whole poem, so I’ll take the smallest.

For one hour

low clouds bring us hills.
They lean in like a mother.

Bald miles rumple, soften
with neighbours and sheep.

Run out, call to your lost,
while the sky cups your mouth.

The way clouds can change a fenscape is a recognisable phenomenon. Several more poems are set in the fens, which, like everything else, Emma Danes makes emotionally atmospheric. Ordinary words are perfectly placed and lineated, and held together with deft, sometimes striking syntax. There’s a reticence about the poems, which feel very poised, and the poise adds to their kinaesthetic vividness. In ‘Notice’, following a redundancy notice, “Everything is the same, // and everything has shifted a little / to the left”. 

Children, small and in distress or growing up, are another setting, of sorts. Some poems explore a single metaphor: a computer is an owl (how come? read the poem! I wish there was space to quote it), and in ‘Living Wheel’, a picture-wheel illustrates the speed of a daughter’s growth from baby

to eighteen and back in the living wheel
of a day – her strobe of images linked
like a motion picture, and my instinct
to give meaning – how what I see is both
unreal and true – how without those flashes
of darkness I would not see her at all.

That’s an ending. Danes is also good at beginnings; syntax plays a part in these two, from ‘My Other Lives’:

Tonight the sheep
have their say

and ‘Night Drive on the Ouse Washes’:

They weren’t to know I’ve taken years
to track a safe path through my head

The opening poem, ‘Violins, 1940’, is the only one not set in the lyrical landscape of memory or present moment; I don’t think it works as a way in to this collection. Although its subject is interesting and well handled, there are lines that feel slightly worn, as in the metaphor “Dust and rubble loosen / from under her tongue” – in contrast with the transformation, elsewhere, of everyday subject matter into something exceptional, as in the end of ‘Wedding Quilt’:

There’s a snapshot of the young quilt when I fold
back a corner. Blues are gentler now, yellows safe.

On the hidden side, our stars are lines of dashes.
In the dark I feel their code break on my skin.