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Smile Variations, Martha Kapos

HappenStance Press, 2019  £5.00


Silence and whispers: these poems are full of them. ‘Something is whispering / on her tongue’ begins the second poem (‘Between major and minor’), while on the facing page ‘Night music’ opens with ‘Their voices are the muffled stuff of breath’. It’s a phrase that catches the secrecy and barely-heard quality of the sound, along with its essential truth: we need breath to live, to be. In this poem it is parents who are speaking, downstairs, and the sound is ‘a broken river’, whose ‘whispering is running up the stairs’. Martha Kapos writes about what is elusive, about the shape of sound and how it surrounds us.

In ‘Paulina’s statue’  the perfect likeness is almost speaking —

You can eavesdrop all night long
on her folded arm. Overhear it
whisper every secret thing you cannot see.

Why is whispering so effective? Perhaps because it’s a private way of passing on confidences with that special quality of closeness and intimacy; it’s personal in the way that it excludes the world at large. There is something of childhood in it (and in these poems) as a way of understanding and coming to terms with the grown-up world. Yet you can never be quite sure you have grasped all of what is said in a whisper; it can hold back some of its possibilities. It is on the edge of language.

That’s where good poems belong, reaching for something for which our daily vocabulary hasn’t the exact words. In ‘Madeleine’ (a reference to the cake that triggers Proust’s memories of childhood) the past is an ‘impossible voice’. That voice, however, can still try to reach the listener, from whatever the past is like:

But a voice from a muffled
underworld room
calls out of earshot
in three dimensions

That’s what it feels like when memory is trying to put words to what is just beyond its grasp. These poems reach into that indefinable and vital space.

D. A. Prince

A smile that says so much

A smile is a simple expression of joy, recognition or occasionally, pleasure gained from something more sinister. But in poetic terms, Martha Kapos has used her Smile Variations to characterise and create imagery in an entirely original and profound way.

In the title sequence which begins with ‘Lake’, Kapos describes a reflection:

the surface of her face is disturbed

[…] looking over the side of the boat
at the oblivious ripples where her smile

deep and enormously small

The last line here incorporates a wonderful juxtaposition — a facial expression so meaningful yet also a mere flicker of emotion and time, ever changing, like the water’s surface.

‘Prison’ is the second poem in this sequence:

Her smile

has escaped over high walls.
Flutters on the run at the corner
of her lips. Do not approach.

The action of this smile ‘on the run’ defines and characterises the female to whom Kapos refers. The poet describes her/it escaping from confinement, scaling walls, the motion of running legs mirroring the flickering corners of lips and the stark warning which follows contrasting with the traditional definition of a smile. Is the escapee amused, joyous, dangerous? Nobody expects a poem of this title to focus on a smile, and yet it works.

In ‘Boat’, the final poem of the sequence, the mood shifts: ‘Her smile snapped shut and behind / the closed door stretched’. The atmosphere is tense, stern, anxious. The sibilance of ‘smile snapped shut’ compounds this.

Later, in ‘Piano Lesson’, when ‘the shy keys open their lips’, the smile takes on a more conventional meaning, symbolising an opening, enabling learning and the creation of music. The final stanza truly basks in the metaphor:

The day of her smile will be
Bank Holiday Monday.
The door will open onto a street
criss-crossed with bunting.
The yellow and blue will lift and flutter at the corners.

The festivity and joy of the occasion ends the poem beautifully. After all, the variations of a smile can only be this impactful when they are the expressions of someone who truly matters.

Vic Pickup