HappenStance, 2011 £4.00
Reviewed by Emma Lee, Charlotte Gann and Ben Parker
The title comes from ‘Underground escalator’ where crowds cross the ellipsis at the point of the escalator where people disembark so scurry towards platforms where “the tracks howl.” The return track of the escalator as it loops back is unexplored, but it’s that moment where a decision could be made to leave or continue with a frustrated status quo that interests Lorna Dowell—do her subjects have the courage to cross the ellipsis and if not what makes them stay?
The treadmill image is effective in ‘Life lines’ where somewhere is the promise of space in between chores thwarted by unanswered phones, road works, indecision and computer crashes. The woman in ‘In Case’ limits her life, even in widowhood, in case dust collects on the shrine she’s made for her husband. Ironically her husband was a motorcyclist who clearly felt free enough to take risks. It’s the accumulation of detail that allows readers to see how stifled her life is without it being spelt out. Unsurprisingly, ‘Suburban Hedging’ gets a poem of its own where dark family secrets lurk beneath the privet hedge respectability of the suburbs. ‘Homecoming’ ends
.......With a casual Hi
...... one blunted brush
...... mouth to mouth
...... stubs out the spark in her eyes.
The husband’s too busy in his daily routine to notice his wife’s lack of response and she has lost the means to communicate her frustrations to him: all this is reinforced through assonance, alliteration and internal rhymes.
There’s an unpleasant swimmer in ‘Measures’:
......Yes, the women are the ones to watch.
...... As for the others—men who keep pace, have the edge,
...... they push you on
...... against the clock, against yourself, on the pretext
...... of winning. For them, you reserve a respect. Keeping up
...... makes keeping going a distraction. Before you know it
...... you’re done.
The swimming narrator defaults to a male yardstick, apparently unable to see that the female swimmers are struggling for space and may have priorities other than racing against the clock. The narrator also seems completely unaware that he or she (probably a 'he' though the gender isn't specified) comes across as being selfish.
The poems in Crossing the Ellipsis seem casual but that’s as a result of very careful use of vocabulary and rhythm. The sameness of tone helps give the chapbook a unified feel but may seem like a monotone in a full collection. Each poem has a sense of menace, inviting readers not to take them at face value but to explore the space between the lines. Giving readers that space is not without risks, but Lorna McDowell offers readers guidance without being didactic.
Lorna Dowell seems to think in long sentences. In her extraordinary poem ‘In search of . . .’ for example:
......These I have found all over . . .
...... the pace/space/spacement,
...... in the path, down my garden, drip/drip
...... ......by the—you know, the one
.. ....in the red van—that man who de . . .
...... ......deceivers the letters.
This poem, in itself, explores sentence, and meaning, construction—presumably in the context of dementia. Slightly tenuously, for me, it winds its way to the final image of a gobstopper.
Pursuing Dowell’s meanings, at times, reminds me of untangling wool. This, from ‘Inversion’, for instance:
...... I’ve watched the tail end
...... of a struggle that turns out to be
...... the head of a decayed lily leaf,
...... leashed to its roots in the slime
...... by an umbilicus it’s trying to break
...... before being drowned.
Whether she’s writing about insomnia, swimming or tube rage, her language uncoils and leads us, like a game of joining dots, to see the end-shape on the page.
At the same time, there are, for me, moments when the communication snaps. I do not really ‘get’ the violence in ‘COMMUTERS UP IN ARMS’; nor the central blood-soaked imagery of ‘Red gloves’.
There are poems I find touching— ‘Life lines’, ‘Night light’—yet, as many which I find uncompelling— ‘In case’ and ‘Clingfilm’, for instance:
.......This once drum-tight skin can never be virgin,
...... no matter how much she labours to stretch it.
...... Don’t get me wrong—it’s always clean.
...... My mother-in-law’s a stickler for hygiene.
I do think poetry can be transformative for everyone involved, however difficult the subject matter. Selima Hill, for instance, for me, takes pain, rejection, rage and somehow recasts them in such arresting imagery that the experience can be totally engaging and energising. It’s something to do with the beauty of language.
At her best, Lorna Dowell can do this too. I very much enjoyed ‘Code’, for instance: “Upstairs, his jeans are shed skins/ concealed within coils of basket weave”; and the pamphlet’s closing poem, ‘Night light’:
......Every evening I don’t cook for you
...... a light bulb lays a goose egg
...... in a stainless steel spoon, hanging—
...... a ladled false moon . . .
Crossing the Ellipsis opens with ‘Homecoming’, in which a husband or lover returns after a long absence. It’s a moment the woman in the poem has waited years for, but his “casual Hi” and “blunted brush” of a kiss leave her disappointed. From the start then, it’s obvious the ‘crossing’ promised in the title won’t always be successful. Indeed, sometimes the ellipses stand as a metaphor for the insurmountable space between the present and the absent. The poem ‘In case’, for example, concerns the necessary but futile rituals carried out by a grieving widow, while in ‘Code’ a woman cleans “to rid herself of the impression/ of someone not there.”
The theme of connection is likely to be at least partly a result of Dowell’s background in social work and teaching, in both of which the establishment of a trusting relationship is important. Although neither of these jobs are mentioned explicitly, it’s likely that the social work aspect informed the poem ‘In search of . . .’. Here, the narrator relates the speech and actions of a character who seems to be collect the rubber bands dropped by the man who “ deceivers the letters”. This mistake in vocabulary indicates there may be some barrier of communication. It’s possible English is not their first language, but the style of speech later in the poem sounds less like someone without English as a first language, and more like someone whose ability to use it has been impaired, mentally rather than physically:
......I know. I’m not stupid. I know
......why they use them—to hold
......them—what are they? These things—
The speaker turns to gestures to supplement their verbal deficiency, but the struggle remains.
The title of Lorna Dowell’s pamphlet is taken from a line in the poem ‘Underground Escalator’ where it is applied to the point where the traveller must depart the moving steps and step on to stationary ground. However, it would have been equally at home in almost any other poem in this book, concerned as they so often are with ideas of connection and communication. Dowell is successful in using this main theme in a number of different ways, producing a collection that’s never predictable, but always feels unified.
And the Common Reader added:
I liked most of the poems in this pamphlet. 'Body armour' was a bit gruesome with the words "bloodless and shining" between each verse but I enjoyed it nevertheless. My favourite was 'Red Gloves'. I actually liked the way the words were not set out in conventional format, even though this usually annoys me because I don't quite 'get' it.