naming bones, Joanna Ingham
Ignition Press, 2019 £5.00
Making room for the feelings
This collection, full of strong, clear, vivid poems, positively bulges with love. And it explores our difficulty containing it. The opening poem, ‘Fontanelle’ observes, as all new mothers must: ‘there has been a mistake. / You have left your heart too close to the surface.’ In ‘Visiting Gwynne’: ‘She served us tongue, / three livid discs each / on milk-blue plates.’ The girl poet can't begin to eat, her mouth ‘full, / suddenly, of my own tongue’.
The too-muchness of things is vivid too in ‘Doing the heart in Lower Five’ — a brilliantly inventive poem that crams much within its frame. Intensity is sustained the length — and breadth — of this fat, one-stanza poem, itself like an enlarged heart on the page before:
Then it’s break and we can wash our hands, drop
our hearts in a bucket like the babies in the abortion
video they made us watch, let the portacabin,
its swollen walls, pump us out into the light.
In ‘Flight’, the idea of a plane’s black box is internalised —‘They’ve fitted me a black box in my chest’ — before taking us on a breathless journey through the heights, and depths, of hypervigilance:
It's actually orange,
my black box, emergency tangerine with
an underwater locator beacon and cockpit
voice recorder so you can hear me screaming
Then: ‘And if you think you can hurt me any / more, you can’t, because my black box sees / it all’.
There’s a poem where things are left out — not ‘contained’, in that sense — to powerful effect: it’s called ‘The Paedophile’ with no further reference to that (clearly crucial) fact. And then there’s also the upside of feeling things intensely. She writes exquisitely of nature, including our place in it, and physical love (from ‘Geckos’: ‘This morning geckos hide under the room’s skin. / The fan rocks loose in its socket’).
The final poem, ‘What autumn is for’, exudes the calm we're capable of, when not overwhelmed, and simply present:
Here, I say, triumphant
as I lift a leaf, the bones of a leaf,
red-purple lace fine enough
to breathe through.
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
(Terrance Hayes, ‘American Sonnets For My Past And Future Assassin’)
Strong poems can lodge in the mind for various reasons. It might be their sound patterning, or a vital image, or perhaps an especially resonant phrase. When I read naming bones, however, it was the poet’s novelistic twists which caught my attention.
As well as a poet, Joanna Ingham is also a writer of fiction. During my reading of this pamphlet, it sometimes felt as if certain poems operated like micro murder mysteries, with each crucial clue staggered so as to keep my curiosity sharp.
In ‘The Corpse Road’, for example, the poet begins with a statement: ‘Six men take the corpse to St Oswald’s.’ This straightforwardness is quickly undercut by the subsequent lines:
The seventh, stiff, waits on a coffin stone
as they eat their lunch, watch the sleet blossom.
It is now clear that the ‘seventh’ man is the corpse alluded to in the title. What makes the description powerful is the quotidian ‘lunch’ the men eat as the corpse ‘waits’. That active verb ‘waits’ introduces a delicious irony, while the ‘sleet blossom’ adds a note of poignancy: death, the poet reminds us, is an everyday fact, and one which won’t pause the seasons despite our human feelings of grief.
In terms of form, ‘The Corpse Road’ is a sonnet, which is often traditionally described as a ‘little room’. It is particularly apt in this context as it parallels the little room of the seventh man’s coffin. Intriguingly, the poet has chosen to divide the sonnet spatially into two parts: octave (the first eight lines) and sestet (the last six lines). The effect of this is to twist the perspective, to stagger the information and dramatic pacing.
In the sestet, we discover that the corpse is the father of one of the six men. By withholding this information until the last phase, the poet gives her poem more emotional punch. What at first seemed like an impersonal description of the journey of a dead man carried by the living is more connected — a network of associations, including familial ones.
Other poems in naming bones work similarly. ‘The Corpse Road’ and ‘The Paedophile’ stood out for me in particular.