HappenStance, 2010 £4.00
Reviewed by Sue Butler, Nathan Thompson and James Roderick Burns with a couple of thoughts from The Common Reader
Anyone who has edited a poetry magazine since 1983 deserves a fanfare. Cue trumpets and step forward, please, Jeremy Page of The Frogmore Papers. Cue applause.
But, while this is a feat of finesse and endurance to be celebrated, at the heart of Page’s poems is sadness. It has eaten its way in, shaping them like water through limestone.
Shut your eyes for a moment and picture a man and a woman on a garden bench. Their kids are in the house bickering and half watching TV. This is the moment the couple agree their marriage is over. They agree, “no, we never expected/ things would turn out like this.” They pour themselves another glass of wine and
agree that this is
somewhere that we never meant to be,
that in high summer it’s a cold and godless place.
So much agreement. So much sadness. Now open your eyes and I bet the picture stays with you long after you’d expect to be thinking about something else. This is the power of these poems. They get under your skin.
And who among us could not relate to ‘Letter of resignation’, where Page says calmly, but most determinedly
I resign from the watching of clocks,
the buying of soap powder and
the daily loss of the will to live.
To whom it may concern: I resign.
We may smile, but in part because his honesty makes us nervous, makes us question our own lives. What could and should we resign from? What’s stopping us living differently?
Who we are and how we end up living are questions that haunt the shadows of many of Page’s poems. In ‘There must be no shadows’ he describes all the rules that apply to having your passport photo taken, ending
Now look; this will be you.
Your passport says so.
Is this a poem about photographs? No. A thousand times No.
In ‘School Play’ we’re told, “Eleven’s no age/ to learn the lessons of/ the large stage.” Jeremy Page has clearly learned some of the larger stage’s hardest lessons. He doesn’t claim to have any answers but these poems lay the questions before us with stark, sad honesty.
I wouldn’t want to debate the old chestnut of whether or not time will heal some of Page’s sadness, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it brings more poems like these.
Jeremy Page is a poet who knows what he wants to say and says it well. These well-crafted lyrics will please any reader who enjoys well-turned phrases and pithy descriptions allied with humour, restraint, intelligence and an eye for pertinent details. They’re not technically ground-breaking and are not for those who want to challenge themselves with innovative approaches to language and its limitations, but that’s not a criticism. You can’t read Prynne or Raworth all the time.
I particularly relished the poems in this pamphlet in which Page isn’t afraid to enjoy himself—they temper the nostalgia of the remaining work nicely and prevent the pamphlet from becoming self-indulgent. Overall, domesticity and its difficulties rule the day but there are some nice imaginative touches, such as the “nightspot on Mars/ [where] Marilyn/ is dancing with Elvis” (from ‘Impossible things before breakfast’). There are beautiful descriptions too, such as “a moon made strangely local” because seen from the small back garden of a revisited childhood home in ‘Eclipse’.
Thematically the poems are personal, concerned with love, loss and observation of the world as the poet sees it. As such, familiar poetic tropes are revisited: relationships with parents, places of importance to the writer, memories of schooldays, family occasions and so on. But there are also a few pieces with a broader remit, such as ‘Variations on a theme from the twentieth century’. This poem re-imagines three scenarios through the eyes of Kafka, Beckett and Pinter and is a wry meta-commentary on the artistic and political concerns of each. I could have done with a couple more poems of this nature in the pamphlet to balance out some of the autumnal sadness, but this is a minor gripe—a personal reaction rather than an aesthetic one.
The production values, as always with HappenStance, are impressive and I liked very much the apt cover image of bare trees in silhouette by Gilliam Beaton. Overall then, In and Out of the Dark Wood is another fine addition to the HappenStance stable.
James Roderick Burns:
In and Out of the Dark Wood is a book of perfect balance. Negativity and positivity, worked conceit and plain style, past and present, darkness and light; in almost every poem, and between individual poems through the work as a whole, Jeremy Page maintains an effortless weighing of elements that is very pleasing. In ‘Eclipse’, for example, a detailed meditation on women’s kinship with the universe, Page can build to a subtle and moving conclusion (“for one tiny moment/ the mystery they share/ is diminished by the wonder/ that is mine as much as theirs”) while accommodating direct satire:
to gaze [ . . . ]
at a moon made strangely local,
contours clear as the chimneys
on next door’s roof but
by their ruddy hue
like some hapless worthy
unaccustomed to the sauce.
Or, in different mode, ‘Outside Munkedal’ outlines an eerie, empty, almost post-apocalyptic landscape before redeeming it with humanity:
Everywhere is absence
but somewhere you must be sitting,
the faintest pulse
in this still, bright evening,
bare-shouldered in candle-light
and brushing long brown hair.
It is a sublime moment, and like each point in the collection, rendered with an achieved precision that masks its own construction. The poems feel effortless. Sometimes a single word, placed in an unassuming context, reveals everything that sits beneath the surface, as in ‘Shaving my Father’:
Tomorrow he may not know
who I am or who I was
but today he does, and is grateful
for the care I take
as I soap his face
with the badger hair brush,
move the blade gently down his chin,
hear his stubble crack.
This last verb leaps off the page with all the force of “buckle” in ‘The Windhover’—a landmark moment, held back deliberately to resonant powerfully with the earlier description of the son’s own first whiskers, “those first few stalks”, and to underscore the chasm in resilience hollowed out by age.
There is great consistency to this balance. We are not buffeted between comic verse and tragic, pared-down epiphany or developed narrative. The elements flow naturally in and out of one another, creating a performance sustained through the entire collection. It is testament to Page’s skill that it can contain widely varying work—“I resign from the watching of clocks,/ the buying of soap powder and/ the daily loss of the will to live” (‘Letter of Resignation’)—indeed work which in other hands would jar or seem out of place, and blend it into a whole:
no one ever told us
how much all that stuff mattered—
between a sitting-room
and a drawing-room;
the length of a single vowel.
(‘What We Never Said’)
For this is how life is lived: comedy into tragedy, and everything in between. The light and shadow of Jeremy Page’s dark wood captures it perfectly.
The Common Reader says:
I am not nearly clever enough for the first few poems in this collection but I really like ‘What We Never Said’ because it has such a true ring to it. I also love ‘Impossible Things Before Breakfast’ (it is oddly sensible) and ‘Being There’.