Plain deep blue cover with paler letteringIn Your Absence, Jill Penny

Smith/Doorstop, 2021   £6.00

A haunting in white

The title poem of this pamphlet is a long sequence reconstructing the psychic dislocation of grief. Formally, it is a dialogue between several voices (Woman, Daughter, Man, Mother) in several recurring locations (House, Hospital, Dream, Garden) as they struggle to come to terms with a shocking and violent loss.

The voices are aware of their own strangeness, their reliance on counting, their experiences of synaesthesia, and most particularly a developing obsession with the colour white.

The rendering of this obsession runs through the piece like a fugue. At first the voices notice ‘white blinds’ in a house, ‘the whites of your rolling eyes’, ‘white lies.’ But before long the noticing goes off kilter, particularly for the speaker labelled ‘Woman’. This is from ‘Dream I’:

The first white number according to the rules for colouring numbers
is 66. I find this significant in ways I can’t explain.

And this, from the first of the sections named ‘Garden’:

                                                                        I spent my
time, in your absence, reflecting on the fact that the colour or
non-colour white reflects and scatters powerful wavelenths of light,
and that I experience these wavelengths physically, in the presence of
all things white.

As time passes, the speaker plants only white flowers, notices primarily white objects, craves white. Here’s ‘House’ (2):

Immersion in the colour or non-colour white aids mental clarity so
in the bright days of July, craving this sensation and this stimulation
I painted every single room in our house white and hung white
curtains for my birthday.

Initially, I worried about making narrative sense of the poem, but quickly understood that it reconstructs something more abstract, but also truer, than a forensic account of the speakers’ experiences.

The obsession is a strategy for holding onto the impossible. In ‘Hospital’ (3) the poet writes: ‘These are days that will be marked forever with a white stone in my mind.’

Like Denise Riley’s ‘A Part Song’, this sequence teaches something profound about living with grief and trauma. I found it haunting, and will certainly return to it.

Heidi Beck