Smith/Doorstop  2008  £4.00


Ann Pilling is a writer of children’s novels who, according to the back jacket flap, has turned to poetry in recent years, and I can see why. The twenty-two poems here form a spare, clear memoir, with the ringing details kept in and the woolly narrative left out. The large question for the reader of any memoir (especially these days, when practically everybody is writing one) is: ‘Will this person’s memories matter to me?’ In this case, yes. Especially Pilling’s memories of her mother, who



when you chomped the new loaf, stoically nibbled
on some black curled crust from the bottom of the crock
her fingers
holding it tight and symmetrical like the neat
claws of a mouse …
(‘Cold Toast’)



We get mere glimpses of this woman—elusive, depressive, a suicide—but those glimpses make us feel the physical impression she has left on her daughter’s soul. “What you did/ was terrible. Its larval ash/ swirls on and on, still burns …” she writes in ‘Dead Letter,’ one of the most elegantly compressed poems. Then she describes the man she married:

… he’s a small man.
He tells rude jokes chucking
his head back like you did ….
He’s got
your eyes and your quiet
Lancashire voice.
Mummy, I married you.



I suppose you could call these a novelist’s poems, since the scenes are so precisely set and the players so deftly observed. I admire the way Pilling allows her recorded memories to speak for themselves, almost always resisting the temptation to sum up at the end, or make the poems snap shut. Her lines are unmetred but musical. There are a couple of poems where she falls into pentameter, and in one of them, ‘Shock Treatment Scene’, that strictness works well for her.


But it’s not the way the poems are made that makes me want to read them again. It’s the diligence of the setting down. It’s the living memory of her dead sister, “the child/ who filled leaf bowls with berries/ let spiders run over your hands while I screamed.” And it’s the image of the sagging balloons Pilling receives in ‘On Being Sixty’:


bumping the rafters now,
the sky’s the thing …

Let me open the window.
One more push and we’ll be away.



Marcia Menter



Sphinx 7 stripe rating




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