Smiths Knoll, 2013   £5.00Sphinx nine striper

Reviewed by Hayley Buckland and D A Prince:

Hayley Buckland:
From the outset, I felt the voice of this poet was strong. I flicked to the title poem and read ‘Sweet Coffee’ with a slight American lilt in my head and was transported to the roadside house, complete with the image of sipping coffee at night. I could feel the heat of the mug and hear the droning of the truck’s engine and I looked forward to reading the rest of the poems.

The cover has a minimalist look with a subtle oblong shaped section of a map. It has the feel of a slim book and is satisfying to hold as well as read. Travel is a consistent theme and the whole pamphlet takes the reader on a journey, to actual places, as well as with language. One of my favourite poems is ‘In the persistent erasure’, where lines such as “the verbs have turned bully, access, finalise” work to create a strange poetic space where it seems perfectly normal and acceptable for warring verbs to shuffle the language in and out of reality, and the dialogue about this is forced to be as slippery as the poem itself:

the verbs are even turning on
each other; the in-fighting has begun.
Was has shunted were out of if’s fantasy-land,

The poems are quite varied. In several, the language is straightforward but evocative. Poems such as ‘Chopper’ and ‘The Welter’ remind me of a grown-up Shirley Hughes with their lists of everyday items building up the scene:

Grubby door jambs.
Clouds in tumult over a roll of pale downs.

In contrast, there are some lengthier poems, the longest being ‘Quanta’, stretching for five pages. There are so often a few weaker lines in a long piece, but I didn’t find that here. It’s sustained and energetic with some startling images, “I hear the making of Born Free / was raw with slaughtered goats, lions breath, murder / – think of my mother, rapt”.

I love the range of this work and I found reading the contents list almost as enjoyable as the poems themselves. There are some great titles, such as ‘No-one needs an angel-cake slicer any more’, ‘I haven’t been to Eastbourne in a long time’ and the rather charming, ‘My father is seated on a small cloud.’

D A Prince:
This collection celebrates the small personal details that keep us distinct from each other in our relationship with the world. It’s an idea set up in the apparently simple opening poem but does not become explicit until ‘Quanta’, the seven-section poem at the heart of the collection. “The minimum amount of any physical entity involved in an interaction” is how Wikipedia defines “quantum”. Wilmot shows us what this means: small kindnesses, casual encounters, a memory of that first car, the details of an unimportant journey across a city just to see something –

Took trains. Tired feet argued let’s not press on.
Now it’s Google, and the loss of that dull space

along blank streets, when suddenly 
you think – and stop to make a note. Or don’t think.
Crunch an apple. Ask a passer-by the way.

Yes, Google gives us access to a huge range of information we could never have imagined and, yes, of course I use it a lot – but it’s world-wide memory, not the intimate recollection of “dull space”, the scraps that cling on in the mind, accessible only to the individual. I can remember every corner where the impulse to write has been so strong I “stop to make a note”, while the big site I’d been visiting – well, that’s in the guide books, on Google, not a private connection.

So, back to the opening poem, to what appears to be no more than an anecdote:  the poet, hitchhiking on a pickup, is given sweet coffee to counter the cold –

                 Something changed that night.
I still took no sugar in my drinks, for years, but I knew
surely as if I’d had a vision and seen God:
one day there’d be sweet coffee.

Such a small word, “surely”, but look how it anchors this poem simultaneously into the poet’s memory and future. As a reader, I can feel the heat, the comfort, the companionship represented in the drink.  

Wilmot’s world has its own texture, and she recognises it: “His hands knew the touch and heft of things” (from ‘I hadn’t been to Eastbourne for a  long time’); “She laughs for the very happiness of things, // my mother does” (from ‘Who live each moment now’). She is generous in leaving us enough space to enter her poems with our own memories while managing to make her own recollections precise.  

Love for her mother is threaded through these poems, particularly in ‘Who live this moment now’, where the focus on warmth, a room, primroses, the moment, the sprawl of ‘things’, the essence of waiting, are so compelling that only at the end, in a triplet, did it dawn on me that this was a sestina. Similarly, I was so absorbed  by ‘America, life’, a rapid tour of the United States with sleeping bags and mileage, that only later did I take in that it was a single-sentence poem. Wilmot has a command of form but doesn’t flaunt it; she lets each poem find the form it needs. And the connections between the poems? – that would take more space than a review allows. They continuing echoing long after the pamphlet is closed. 

Smiths Knoll bowed out in 2012 with its fiftieth issue, and is much missed. I hope this pamphlet – ‘Published May 2013’, an unusually precise dating – won’t be the last from what has been a sensitive and finely-tuned publisher.