Nothing But Words, Jean Stephens
Naked Eye Publishing, 2020 £6.99
The dead speak volumes
This pamphlet looks back over the poet’s life, and asks whether enough was said. The inevitability of an ending, and sense of loss, is in every poem. I was quickly drawn into the spirit of this strange space between life and death: ghosts populate the poems and I realised, as I read, that they often have more to say than the living.
In ‘If Sylvia Plath was my best friend’ (written ‘after Nina Mingya Powles’), we are told:
She’d be edgy as a sheep protecting lambs.
Her nostrils would twitch at smells
my nose couldn’t pick out
she’d give me that girlie talking-to
as we hovered at the edge
although she helped me
find phrases for the dark, not one
of my words could help her at all
It’s this axis that many of the poems revolve around: the dead speak to us, but there’s no pathway back for our words to reach them.
It’s the ghosts who bring the collection alive. In ‘Midnight in Claret and Blue’ a football pitch is the setting, as the poet watches one of her long-dead ‘heroes’, Stanley Matthews, ‘deftly / weave the ball past everyone’. And some of the ghosts are family members. In ‘I still hear Uncle Stan’ his words every Christmas — delivered from his ‘plantless concrete back yard’ — end with the phrase:
You are nearer to God’s heart
in a garden than anywhere else on earth
In ‘The people who live inside me’ there’s a long list of sayings from a ‘mesh of voices’ including:
You’d better be a good girl or those lions
outside the town hall will gobble you up
In ‘The path’ the father, ‘his work-worn hands heavy with / love’, does not turn back for ‘one last look’. And the closing poem, ‘Shall we talk’, begins with: ‘or shall we go quietly into the evening’. Here, Dylan Thomas is spirited up — though this poem advocates acceptance rather than rage in face of the inevitable.
The pamphlet left me with a deep sense of sadness — all the more poignant for the voices of ghosts.