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.