Some Couples, Jennifer Copley
HappenStance, 2017 £5.00
Happiness and Unhappiness
The happiest couples in Jennifer Copley’s very enjoyable Some Couples, are dead. The living are often coercive or obsessive. Dave makes Debbie lie with him all night under the dropping fruit of a pear tree with the rats; Carmelita rules Jeff and gives him bruises; the woman in ‘Leeds City Station, 1918’, sits waiting twenty years for her man who doesn’t come home. How happy they’d be if they were Mr and Mrs Angel whose warmth still pervades their house after their demise, or the deceased parents of the narrator in the pamphlet’s final poem who now ‘eat cake mostly’ and have ‘no more worrying about dinner’!
Notable exceptions to the rule are Mr and Mrs Andrews in ‘At Furness General’. Admittedly they ‘died last Tuesday/ at opposite ends of the hospital’, but they’d lived harmoniously, even agreeing on when to die. The poet speculates in wonderfully physical detail about how they managed this:
whispering to each other
through the walls, their spitty breath,
going up and down the corridors
She doesn’t think her considerate couple would want to die ‘on a Sunday when their daughter visited / or a Thursday when their neighbour came’ and she suggests, in a tender, relaxed concluding image, that:
they must have longed to lie
just one more time together, back to back,
warm buttocks touching.
Reading ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’ as the opening words of this poem, I can’t help thinking of Gainsborough’s famous painting of that title, depicting a miserable pair who clearly didn’t agree on anything and never had family or friends who’d want to visit them. Paul Durcan, in his ekphrastic collection, Give Me Your Hand, has Mrs A murder her ‘Bobsie’ with his own gun. Melodramatic perhaps, but she looks a hard woman under her finery. It’s difficult to believe this couple had buttocks, let alone the warm kind with which Jennifer Copley endows ‘Bob and Nora’. She rehabilitates their surname. I expect to meet some happy Mr and Mrs Andrewses from now on.
Expansiveness under an umbrella
What most struck me reading this pamphlet was how wonderfully subtle and encompassing an exploration can be when framed by a unifying theme. So this collection’s called Some Couples, and every poem contains one—a couple. We’re anchored, as readers, by this. But the angles and treatments are then hugely varied. There’s nothing narrowing about having the theme. In fact, the opposite.
A number of these poems are quite squarely about (seemingly) specific couples. They explore the complexity, and ambivalence, surrounding all sorts of liaisons. There are moments of tenderness and moments of loneliness. What’s most under the microscope is, it seems to me, the unconscious fit between people, and how it’s played out.
At beautifully spaced intervals you get even greater surprises—a poem where, for instance, the relationship takes a while to locate. ‘Night Worker’ spends more than half its thirteen lines with a woman alone whose job, we’re told, is ‘to mop out cubicles’:
Fifty-four pans to bleach, ten sinks
to scrub. She hates it all—
Where on earth is the couple in this? We have no idea, but know to linger … and it’s worth it. Or ‘No More Pears’, which spends two of its three stanzas ruminating the fruit. In this case, there is a ‘they’ but we’re alone with ‘She’. Until the start of verse three: ‘Her husband loved them stewed / swimming in Carnation Milk’.
‘The Drowners’, which opens the collection, surprises me with its cast of ‘You’ and ‘She’ (as opposed to a more expected conjunction). But ‘You Touched Me’ closes with perhaps my personal favourite image (for someone struggling in relation): ‘I hid behind a curtain / but my feet gave me away.’
I can’t end without mentioning ‘The Two Friends’. Here, our couple are (blissfully) ‘A small mouse’ and ‘a corner of a field’. I want to personally thank Jennifer Copley for intervening: ‘Don’t worry, little corner! I am the writer of this poem / and I can reveal…’
You need to read ‘The Two Friends’. You need to read it. (Or at least I did.)