Koo Press, 2009 £5.00
Reviewed by Michael Tolkien, Helena Nelson and Emma Lee
This is a first collection (presented by Koo Press in classy, durable format) but much of the writing is clearly well gestated. At once and subsequently the voice and phrasing feel assured. The poet is selective over what really counts in a complex experience and holds back from being too definitive.
Three quarters of the poems concern the central figure of a deceased father, just after his death and during his working life, seen from a child’s perspective and also from the viewpoint (in mature hindsight) of her mother. Making personal reminiscence more than subjective recollection is never easy; and taken as a whole these sixteen poems form a well-rounded portrait that looks at every strength, weakness and imponderable contradiction in this influential character. There’s a range of standpoints and plenty of formal experiment.
I like the way a child’s recalled puzzlement over (and unexpected acceptance of) adult behaviour is left to take its course with no ‘knowing’ explanation. I was particularly intrigued by ‘Jungle’ where she seems to recall seeing a white leopard attacking her cat, and the beast turns out to be her father:
When he saw me he slunk to his corner.
The cat ran away. I never saw it again.
But I saw the carpet’s tell-tale sign of red.
So I went into the world and tried to understand
the blood of stones and the way the moon hid
behind the house. Then suddenly reappeared again.
That is typical of how Torr suggests, in symbolic terms, that the fearfully inexplicable can generate a step forward in development. Childhood for her was instructive, never recalled with bitterness.
However, for me the most arresting poems have a straight, unflinching grasp of a memory, expressed in a spare style, and focused in content and imagery, as in ‘Jack in a Box’ where she looks at her father in his coffin:
I thought of the big paws delving into big pockets
to bring out tiny sweets wrapped up like diamonds.
Or shaping a wooden doll with hinges for limbs.
I see him now amid the glistening sawdust peaks;
a giant, wrestling his saw in the sunlight,
standing back now and then, for our small approval,
and the tail-proud cat wrapping itself around his legs;
a back-log of memory for a backyard scene.
Torr can make metaphor surprising and apt. At the funeral “Mother wore a black hat/ like a submarine coming to surface out of all that pain”. In city streets, fear of which, like touching her dead father, she must overcome, “people waltzed with roses in their eyes/ on extinction’s edge”. Sometimes, though, she accumulates too much figurative language, which fragments our attention and the poem’s integrity.
The book’s last quarter felt more abstracted and ‘engineered’, although I liked the mysterious piecing together of a lost cotton industry in ‘Not a Loch, not a Lake, but a Millpond’.
This is a beautifully presented pamphlet, a pleasure to hold and read. It contains very personal writing, verse from the heart. One has the sense throughout that these are poems that matter, poems not lightly written, though some, to my mind, are more fully achieved than others.
Much here depends on a childhood perspective. Consequently part of the fascination lies in trying to work out what is really going on, since the child’s understanding is limited (“So I went into the world and tried to understand/ the blood of stones”). The poet is reflecting on the past, the child in her trying to reconcile her adult understanding with what she knew then—and the reader is invited into this process. It is sensitively and delicately handled.
Some poems are more musical than others. I liked the ones where skilful repetitions leant grace to the phrasing and where syntax was not unduly fractured by line breaks. Some of the poems handle enjambment in what seems to me a self-conscious fashion, with lines frequently breaking just before the verb to give that slightly breathless syntax so typical of contemporary verse. Sometimes I think there is a case for this; at other times it looks to me a little mannered.
Sound quality is perhaps something the poet could reflect on more carefully: in ‘Tsunami Girl’ – a poem fascinating in many ways, the build-up of ‘ing’ words starts to worry me, especially in the phrase “twitching lace mimicking breath”, not long after “diving”, “holding” and “dancing”. However, the choice of individual word and phrase is often a delight. In the same poem, I loved “an archive of buttons” and “a crustacean plotting the symmetries of its world”.
Harriet Torr is an interesting poet, a fairly new voice in Scottish writing. It is clear that she cares deeply about the art and that she has something to say.
This is a pamphlet in two parts, the first collecting poems about the poet’s late father and the second a collection of unthemed poems. It’s a pamphlet of contrasts too. In ‘My Father’s Clock’ there is great energy and images:
I can hear it ticking over the red Formica
of the table that has sat through a world war,
its stout oak legs holding up the china
of small conversations, the roughened elbows
resting from fields, the anarchy of wheat,
the blast of silo and threshing machine.
We are very much aware of those careful conversations with a man of few words who doesn’t naturally reveal emotion and is probably awkward with children. In ‘Jungle’, on the other hand:
I saw a white leopard chasing my cat,
the loud skirry and scruff of fur and high pitch
sound of pain as the leopard sunk it’s (sic) fangs.
And then I saw that the leopard was my father.
The “it’s” is an error that also occurs elsewhere. The leopard is a dream leopard, but the imagery doesn’t quite work: cats don’t hunt/ eat other cats unless protecting young, and a leopard is an ambush killer that wouldn’t waste its energy chasing prey out on the rather un-jungle-like African plains (although leopards do climb and sleep in trees). Jaguars and tigers are jungle cats and dogs will chase any cat. Yes—it’s only a metaphor, but it distracted me from the poem.
Torr is strongest, to my mind, with character studies, for example a grandfather in ‘The Disappearance’
smiling over obituaries,
smelling of kippers
and something like the sea
although he had never touched water.
His gaze was like a seaman’s, too,
used to looking into the un-blotted distance,
perhaps from scanning fields at dew,
or scaring birds with his well-trained gun.
I would like to see more of these character studies because Harriet Torr is skilled at describing people and although some poems need polish, the good ones here do work.