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.