Hearing Eye, 2012 £4.00
Reviewed by Richie McCaffery, Peter Jarvis and Helena Nelson
‘Cars shivering in the heat haze.
How poetic. I’ll use that.’
‘No. You can’t. It’s mine.’
I stroke her hair, say nothing.
She’s nine and mine.
Here, in ‘A Leaf out of my book’, the speaker has a dialogue with her poetically gifted daughter and the humorous take on in-family plagiarism adds some timely (and topical) light relief. Although Kelly’s poems on family life and societal issues are often witty on the surface, they carry cutting undertones that criticise human nature. For instance in ‘The Fair Way’ we see Kelly discuss the gulf between the name and reality of a local ‘Lovers Walk’ where a “turd-tarnished way” leads to a brook full of “shipwrecked trolleys”. In this poem and others, the poet subverts the language and tone of a wildlife programme to provide a cutting commentary on class and pretension:
Sometimes you can glimpse a golfer
in bright diamond-patterned plumage
through the foliage, but don’t follow:
his species is protected,
and so is his habitat.
The speaker of Kelly’s poetry underscores their disdain for nouveau riche poseurs-cum-golfers in ‘Waiting at Frinton-on-Sea Golf Club’ and in other poems where the views of bigoted neighbours are confronted. Although Kelly handles these issues in a memorably witty way, you get the impression that the one thing keeping the speaker chipper is their endearingly dysfunctional family life. Trying to teach a child to “talk properly”, the speaker swears and the didactic roles between parent and child are brilliantly reversed in ‘Speech Marks’:
‘Shit!’ I murmur, and he’s back for a biscuit and has overheard.
‘Mum!’ he says. ‘Don’t say shit. I know it’s the f word.’
This is not to say all of Kelly’s poems are ostensibly light-hearted with an underlying satirical bite. There are poems, such as ‘The Eye of the Beholder’, which offer a more poignant view of family life and give the collection much of its texture by bringing experience and poetry much closer to home:
When I awake,
before I put in my lenses,
my grandfather’s painting looks like a Monet [ . . . ]
I step forward to stroke the picture’s rough paint,
something I could never do to a Monet.
In Lisa Kelly’s pamphlet, some of the best poems are familial; others largely gauge the feel of London living, including some of its disquietudes. In tone they are humorous and genial – never sardonic. There is a satirical tinge noticeable when human sprawl invades any form of natural life.
For example, a sign in a park lists natural species visitors may expect to see there: small mammals, birds, butterflies, dragonflies,etc (‘All Recorded Species’). Wittily, Kelly attaches natural features to the humans – some “preen”; a lady “basks”; a girl with mobile “squeak(s)” and “flits by”. The only butterfly is “The painted lady with Kohl-ringed eyes / and orange powder on cheekbones.” Nocturnal and amphibious creatures are not to be seen, of course:
the lesser spotted remain
less spotted and man manifestly
makes his mark in this and every park.
‘CCTV’ is a verse paragraph of 4-stress lines in alternate rhyme. Here the camera is personified as a streetwalker – “dregs / are what I deal in” – self-pitying repository of “things no-one should have to know”. The analogy of camera with streetwalker is cleverly sustained.
Less successful as a poem (it’s a very raggedy sestina) but a sharp account of the troubled nights in London two summers ago is ‘A Capital Riot’. The speaker introduces into the poem a most unlikeable neighbour “Betty from number 43” as well as Molly and Angus, the speaker’s own teenagers. Betty has extremist views – “feral rat teenagers”, for example. But the speaker defends her children, a little sanctimoniousy: “Mine don’t drink”. The twist is that it’s her good children who end up in a late-night riotous spree: “They ignored the 11 o’clock rule; came back with half of Comet. I give up.”
In ‘The Eye of the Beholder’ a painting done (or owned) by her grandfather is transformed into an Impressionist masterpiece through the viewer’s myopia. Only when her contact lenses are in place does it revert to being an amateurish “attempt at realism”. Painting and grandfather are both invested with love in this subtle poem. Touching also is the sonnet ‘Homeward Bound’ describing her mother’s departure from hospital in her final days. With reference also to the ambulance drivers, it closes:
Inside this ambulance, we each have a view:
a traffic jam for them; home for her; for me a pew.
This agreeable collection would have benefited from a bit of pruning: there is an element of sprawl that suggests some of the poems might be at their best in performance.
My pencilled note to myself at the front of this pamphlet reads: 9 strong poems, a few good performers, a couple of ‘see I can do this too’, a couple of ordinaries.
Such are the brutal summaries of the reviewer. But in fact, 9 strong poems out of 29 is pretty damn good for a debut pamphlet. So I’m going to focus on what Lisa Kelly does well.
She can capture a natural speaking voice, one that sounds both innocent and compelling at the same time. It’s quite something in operation. ‘A Classmate’ took me right inside an experience, so vividly it was suddenly mine. It’s the experience of being asked out by a boy at school “and here he is, and here he is, and here he is, / and I can’t think of anything to say”. And then the moment comes. He asks her out “but I am so unready for this moment, I say, ‘What?’ / and he says ‘Nothing,’ / and goes to sit back down in his place’. I had forgotten the agony of it, the awfulness of adolescence. This poem brought it all back brilliantly.
‘A Classmate’ musters the surge of a true poem too, the rush of an experience rendered in driven syntax and phrasing. It works beautifully.
There are poems here where an equally emotive anecdote sits at the heart of the text (for example ‘A Leaf out of my Book’) where I was less sure of the craft. It’s hard to explain why sometimes an experience feels solidly poem-like and at other times it’s more like . . . a personal anecdote, with line breaks.
But when it works it works. In ‘Speech Marks’, for example, she runs a longer line, long enough to accommodate the surging speech rhythms and even unobtrusive end-rhyme. It is really just a funny little personal story but delivered with artistry, charm and panache. The result is a delight. And then there’s ‘Cycling to the South Bank’ and ‘For Sale’, ‘Cold Call’ (chillingly good) and ‘CCTV’, ‘Off Track’ and ‘A Reliable Witness’. Often Kelly is witty but she can hurt too. ‘Sun Goddess’ made me shiver.
There’s a feeling here of a debut poet ringing the changes, demonstrating a whole variety of abilities, including the obligatory sestina. There’s also a strong central core of poems with a clear, unique ‘voice’. I’d say this poet is going somewhere.