Bloodlines, Hannah Brockbank
Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2017 £6.00
Punctuation for poets
This strongly emotive set of poems takes as a central idea a father who is not there. Imagery of abandonment, isolation and vulnerability is strongly affecting.
In ‘Hollow’ the child narrator buries herself under snow in the school playground, a radical change from the usual happy snow-angel activity. The pacing is effective, a sequence of simple phrases, one placed after another:
on the school field,
I hollowed out
the settled snow
behind the firs
and lay down
in the depression.
The clarity of the visual imagery is emotionally charged and striking.
However, when reading these poems as a set I felt punctuation — usually commas — was periodically intrusive, like snowflakes blurring the view. It is not always an issue (as in the example above, where although commas are not needed at the ends of lines, neither are they obstructive). Occasionally, though, a comma sets up a mini-barrier, as in ‘Photograph’ where one worms its way between a noun and its verb:
The photo I’ve brought for reference,
echoes the rows of villas behind [ ...]
Punctuation in contemporary poems is tricky. Line breaks create their own pauses or hesitations. Can they substitute for commas? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. When asked about punctuating poems, Philip Larkin said he punctuated them the same way as prose — at least I think he did. I can’t remember where I read this now. Either way, it’s a perfectly reasonable default. I am of course reading as an editor, and apologetically identifying this as a point of interest, but Hannah Brockbank is a good poet and would be better, to my mind, with fewer commas.
One of my favourite poems in Bloodlines (‘Once’) is also the shortest and simplest. It’s a wonderful example of less is more. The father who is not there leaves a great empty space echoing in the poet’s life. The vastness of his absence is evoked in just thirteen words — remarkable. The poem may have one more comma than it needs, but this is a minor cavil. Here it is in its entirety, including its first-line title:
he must have made