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