Invisibility for Beginners, Helen Pizzey
Cinnamon Press, 2018 £4.99
Holding up a mirror
For a pamphlet with ‘invisibility’ in its title, it seems to me fascinating that Helen Pizzey’s poems so often focus on what is seen. She uses strong visual images but also weaves many references to eyes and mirrors into the poems.
In ‘Calving’ a shocked child ‘sees a gargoyle head’ of a calf being born. In ‘Familiar’, a partner is seen as ‘a shadow-boxing male’ (leveret) with ‘a slit gaze’:
your eyes gleaming solstice
An interesting mix of prose poems weaves through this pamphlet. In ‘This is My Room’, the poet muses on ‘Things in my room, I see them or I don’t’ and confides:
my skin hasn’t told me who I am; my eyes in the mirror still ask.
I particularly enjoyed ‘Still life’ where she plays on the idea of a painting in the title, but takes us into the life of a rough sleeper. She creates a double image:
in the tilt of a pear
against its hip-joined shadow
Pizzey makes visual links to film. ‘Say Yes’ invokes ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ — contrasting the scene of Hugh Grant’s non-marriage proposal with a Welsh Hill farmer commenting on the wisdom of getting hitched, while dealing with a sheep in labour. In ‘Red Rag’, she describes the Andalusian landscape as ‘outcrops clad in sage stubble like Clint Eastwood’s chin’.
‘Alice at 90’ evokes an elderly woman for whom making sense of what she sees is complicated: taking pills causes her to ‘shrink inside mirrors’. In ‘Healer’, Pizzey describes a blind man mending nets ‘their shadows latticing spent retinas.’
The penultimate poem ‘Your Mind’ uses the extended metaphor of a goldfish to describe the mind. I could relate to that fish in its ‘lonely bulbous window’: the only time I ever looked after one, it died. I am still haunted by ‘its dull listless eyes’.
And the title poem ‘Invisibility for Beginners’ suggests how to be invisible, ending ‘I look forward to not seeing you soon’. I look forward to the opposite: seeing a lot more poetry from Helen Pizzey.
Bookshop: poetry section: shelf: I’m looking for something I know nothing about, flick on past this spine and the next, the one after that until Invisibility for Beginners suggests complexity. Intrigued, I ease the volume from its neighbours, feel its cover and weight, then enjoying the not-understanding, turn the first page. The title’s invited me in.
Excited to read the contents list. Shall I choose ‘Moon’ or ‘Thaw’ or maybe a longer title like ‘The First Dream Tax Inspector’ or ‘A Terrible Hardness’?
The latter fits my mood, yet I find no hardness here: ‘Taking your pulpy arm to steer you / is like putting my hand into running water’. So the titles oppose? Is this their way? I try the concluding poem, ‘Thaw’ (which in the original is fully justified in layout):
And so it was that the manically depressed iceberg had
managed to empty the North Atlantic Bar for the third night
in a row, having bored the local clientele – seals, mostly –
with tales of his disastrous former life.
I’m in. Want more of these playful associations. Take ‘Your Mind’ – two straightforward downright words that lead to a delicate goldfish decline:
Eventually the water clouds and stinks
until finally there’s just its dull, listless eyes
and slack lips mouthing at the glass
‘Oedipus Complex’ is a mite too obvious, stamping its authority on the poem, leaving less space for meaning to develop. Yet on the whole there’s lively contrast in this collection: fine, bubbly balance between each title and its poem, as in ‘Familiar’ which leads the reader towards a sultry unfamiliar:
[ ...] here you lie,
pelt cheek cupped to my belly, silk ear
sounding for the root of my voice
When writing myself, titles often come to me as afterthoughts. Some never feel ‘right’, as if masking a perfect alternative. Others sulk, as in ‘this will have to do’, or ‘it doesn’t matter what the hell you call me’. But a few hang on for dear life, refuse to transform. Occasionally, one lands with grace, sings to a poem, remains.
As with Pizzey’s ‘Hush Now’ for a drowning: ‘No point in struggling: there is only now, / this moment; waiting for what has already taken place.’