Acumen 2010, £3.50
Reviewed by D A Prince, Matt Merritt and Helena Nelson
D A Prince:
When you pick up a collection by an unfamiliar poet, where do you start? Often it’s the back cover, the blurb: a good place to look for clues and connections. The words here should be chosen with the same care as any within the poems; books compete with each other for our limited reading time, and if a blurb jars, it’s less likely that the casual reader will explore further. So when I read “Helen Ashley’s poetry arises from her lifelong love of manipulating words. . .” I was nervous. It’s that word “manipulating”: it carries a hint of mechanical twisting, or something not quite honest. It’s not how poets work.
Fortunately the poems showed otherwise, revealing Ashley’s long-standing love of the Devon landscape, seasonal shifts, and the effects of weather. The cover has a photograph of stonecrop—just the sort of small un-showy plant Ashley would notice. She’s at her best when writing most directly about her observations of the natural world—as in ‘Yuletide’, where “a small bird/ claims his space with thin, sharp song” or in ‘Shapeshifter’, watching a butterfly feed on nasturtium leaves “with the spice taste still on your jaws”. When she can strip her poems back to this simplicity they work well; she has an eye for detail.
Single lines stand out: her evocation of the sound of walking through autumn woods (“my feet/ make autumn conversation with the path”) is more memorable than the preceding phrase which opens the poem, “Susurrus of shed leafage”. The idea of ‘conversation’ brings an equality to humans and trees, and joins their separate worlds. In ‘Grandmother’s jug’ the image of a jug filled with summer flowers “diverting bees in at the open window” has a timeless comforting appeal—and I would have been happy for the poem to end with this. The anecdotal poem ‘Misfortune’, about a doorstep caller selling tablecloths, ends well with a focus on the irrational guilt of not buying, and so not bringing good luck into the house to cure another’s back pains.
This is a pleasing pamphlet, and a reminder of how well Acumen serves its readers.
It’d be interesting to know if Helen Ashley is a dancer, because two of the best moments in this pamphlet suggest as much.
One of them, ‘From A To B’, describes a coastal walk in terms of a “familiar left-right two-step pattern” becoming “a complex bend and stretch/ with a slip or trip thrown in”. In the first two stanzas, Ashley matches the rhythm of her unrhymed free verse to the stop-start, convoluted nature of the walk.
Similarly, in ‘Frances Dancing With Martinu’, there’s a very musical feel to the first two verses, with lots of little echoes and chimes that help create a feeling of losing yourself to the dance.
Both, it has to be said though, share a common fault, a tendency to sum things up all too neatly and sometimes rather portentously in the final few lines. In the latter of the two, the lines “and we are privileged to join/ the dance with Martinu and you” rather destroys the spell that’s been cast a little earlier.
The same thing happens in a number of other poems, with a few too many of the epiphanies hammered home. The poet appears determined to see everything in metaphorical terms, and words such as “mystic” and “wondrous” also crop up a bit too often for my liking—again Ashley is far better when she trusts the reader enough to recognise wonder for themselves.
That was one reason I liked ‘Luna Aeterna’, one of the shorter poems here. While the poet’s appeal to Selene, Hecate and Artemis to watch over a loved one might feel over the top, Ashley has already undermined any real danger of that:
. . . the moon, just short of full,
lighting his road,
means no more to him
than the closer glow of street lamps.
Yet still, foolishly,
I draw on her romance. . .
That introduction of multiple viewpoints of the same situation into a very short piece makes for much more interesting reading. Used more often, it could help bring out all the best elements of Ashley’s work.
Helen Ashley’s poems, for me, vary dramatically. There are a few—and one in particular—that seem to me perfectly poised, fine writing. Others give me a sense of a poet trying too hard, rather than relaxing into the simple truths she burns to share.
The title poem, for example, ends:
. . . the interchange of mind with mind
will ever lie
beyond the boundary of words.
So it will. And here it is unfussily and plainly put. However, that straightforward statement is preceded by:
From the far articulation
of a language that was theirs
and through transliteration
—voice to scribe to print—
becomes our own,
we light on ways of saying
how the interchange of mind with mind . . .
This is complicated, and it doesn’t seem to me to connect. I’m still not sure what the subject of ‘becomes’ is. Could ‘through’ be a misprint? Could the intended word be ‘though’? Or is there a word missing? Either way, the syntax loses me.
On the other hand, there’s ‘Moving’, which finds its unobtrusive place at the bottom of a page where another poem ends, a bit like a visual afterthought. But what an afterthought! Here the control of syntax is absolutely secure. There is no unnecessarily fancy coinage. It is as simple as a first-rate haiku and extremely moving:
Most of it doesn’t matter except
that in a cracked pot, given up for dead,
left to the random network
of slug trail, spider web,
domes of grey-haired cactus push forth,
in spite of it all,
one flame flower
for no other purpose than regeneration.
What further proof is needed that Helen Ashley is a poet?