Briar Mouth, Helen Nicholson
HappenStance, 2018 £5.00
Texture and layout as a form of experiencing
‘The mind speaks at a pace I cannot match in my speech.’ This feeling describes the experience of many people who struggle with speech. Often the pain of articulation is caught between the tongue and the teeth. Sounds cannot find their way out of the mouth in the intended shape or with the force the speaker imagines in their head. Often strategies include kinesthetics to support the articulation. This comes alive in ‘Speech Therapy’ as Nicholson vividly expands:
Most times the ‘k’ sticks in my throat, won’t
slide past my lips without a kick under the table.
In the title poem, ‘Briar Mouth’, the poet uses the layout to create a visually startling representation of this experience, making it real for even those who have never struggled with it. The reader can imagine the texture of the bramble punctuating speech with nicks and bloodied space colouring the landscape of thought and feeling as the speaker explores this pain and effort:
Had I been granted pebbles in my m outh
I would have dis bursed my g ift long ago
But I was granted brambles
Thorns n icked but it wasn’t all
b loody Occasional soft dark fruit
p ushed past the alveolar ridge
Having myself worked with students who have had such challenges, I thank Helen for writing these two poems and providing strength.
Writing with tenderness
Helen Nicholson writes with a tender touch. For example, in ‘On My Father’s Side’ (part iv of ‘A Family History’) her great grandfather’s brothers carry his coffin across a burn to its resting place. They walk barefoot in ‘the water’s chill’, reminding us of their shared boyhood. A ‘wreath of toe tacks’ rests on the lid testifying to his strength. The departed is present as he reaches ‘the other side’, to the banking and the next world. The tenderness of the poem reminds me of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.
But this tenderness is also extended to matters less commonly associated with human emotions. For example, ‘Woodcarver’ explores the carving of a plate, evoking life’s journey, birth, shaping, finality. As the craftsman works, we see the carver ‘run [his] finger along the grain’, moving with the fret or gouge, ‘finger, palm and eye in grip’. He listens to the ‘knock on the heart’, a tender play on the display of love and affection. He dances with the flow of time ‘willing to breathe long, / contort and bend’.
‘Woodcarver’ is evocative. Limewood and linden scent the lines. Textures and shapes of ‘oyster, rosewood, peapod and feather / in pliant wood’ are present. Wrens sing. Music and colour ooze out of the poem, tender and sweet, as ‘grapes blush, / anemones bow their heads’. The ‘brittle twist of my laurel leaf’ reveals ‘its crisp decay’.
And we contemplate our own end.
The power of memory
Briar Mouth is a pamphlet that brims with recollection and remembrance. Helen Nicholson remembers the speech impediment that dominated her childhood in the beautifully crafted title poem. She creates a poem that feels like a stammer through her clever use of spacing. The hard consonants followed by gaps lay out the pitfalls for the unwary stammerer. The image of a speech impediment as a mouth full of bramble thorns stabbing the speaker’s palate works well, and the reader is immediately empathetic. ‘Fruit bursting in the mouth’ is a delightful image of success.
Nicholson picks up the theme again in her next poem, ‘Speech Therapy’, exploring the difficulty of pronouncing the letters p, c, and k, sounds most people take for granted. The image of an adder stretching to an anaconda during pronunciation is very well drawn.
‘Sticks and Stones’, a drama of the schoolroom, shows the sad, lonely ‘Sgadan’ isolated at the back of the class by the smell of mackerel that clings to him. He is ostracised by the rest of his peers and contrasted with Jellicoe, the son of an absent sailor and a mother who runs a grocery shop. Social class is alive and well in this childhood schoolroom.
The poet writes vividly about concrete memories. In one section of ‘Family History’ she recalls her relative John rubbing linseed oil ‘gently / on a secret drawer’ and there is striking clarity in section ii of this poem (‘Helen Hamilton in Old Age, 1961’) where Nicholson uses sonnet form expertly to create a picture of a defiant old lady in ‘damp old age’ and ‘Frayed elastic and thick slippers.’ The recollection of Helen Hamilton’s vision of the baby Jesus, and her hatred of her husband, have the truth of lived experience.