Mariscat Press, 2003 - £5.00
Alison Prince’s poems sneak up on you: They’re so understated and seemingly transparent that at first you may miss their substance. But they’re deeper than they seem, and the resonances linger. About halfway through the twenty-seven poems in this sturdy, typographically pleasing pamphlet, I realized that she must have achieved a certain age—her father served in the First World War, and she has memories of air-raid sirens in the Second—but something about the quality of her experience is ageless. She has a gift for being present at her own life—all of it at once.
In “Minnows,” for example, she begins with a present-tense remembrance of trapping tiny fish in “a hopeful jam-jar”: “wonderful to bring/ them and their liquid world into the air/ a skin of glass between us.” By the second stanza, she’s the minnow, being caught by a “shining fish” of an aeroplane with a “jam-jar mouth”: She controls the metaphor beautifully, catching both her childhood and adulthood in it. The four stanzas of “Flying” (another poem about aeroplanes—Prince must fly a lot) capture nearly a century of family history: “My father never flew. The troopship was/ enough, with its horizon going up/ and down, and Flanders waiting . . .” The final stanza, clear-eyed and unsentimental, wakes us with a thump:
I’m flying. Push the blind up — dazzling dawn
pours in. There is a smell of microwaved
pre-scrambled eggs. Down there, the sea. And we
in rumpled blankets cannot feel amazed.
Memories themselves are not enough; it’s the living point of view that matters.
Prince is not primarily a poet, but a biographer and writer of children’s fiction; she also scripted the Trumpton TV series.There are poems in the collection that seem self-consciously poetic, largely, I think, because they’re in rigid pentameter. But there are many others where she allows herself to vary the line lengths and let her voice, in all its playful gravity, emerge. In “Wasps,” my favorite, she actually surrenders a room of her house to wasps building a nest on a lampshade, too fascinated by their cycle of creation and exhaustion to kill them. This is a woman after my own heart.
The Common Reader says of The Whifflet Train: If poetry works when you feel something as you read. Alison Prince knows how to make the reader feel.