Salt Modern Voices, 2011, £6.00
Reviews by Sue Butler, Niall Campbell and James Roderick Burns.
In ‘Introduction to Poetry’, by Billy Collins, the narrator lists all the things he asks his students to do to a poem, then concludes
...... But all they want to do
...... is tie the poem to a chair with rope
...... and torture a confession out of it.
...... They begin beating it with a hose
...... to find out what it really means.
The problem I had with Angela Topping’s I Sing of Bricks was that I couldn’t see anything that needed drawing out . . . by coaxing or by beating.
Aware that I’m neither the brightest nor most perceptive bear in the forest, I didn’t give up but did as Billy advises. I held the poems up to the light, pressed my ear against them, then dropped in a mouse . . . but still I was missing something. I rue my inability, my failure to respond, because the loss is mine.
It does seem to me, though, that there’s a cliché issue here. The snake rattles his attack and the sailor makes scrimshaw toys and longs for land. In ‘Sunset over Galway Bay’ (a sight I know well) “The Atlantic Ocean burns/ as the sun goes down in flames.” In ‘Heron’ the lawn, “is spotted with apples/ wormy windfalls, bruised and tart”. And the heron is like “Lucifer/ flying back to heaven/ beautiful as sin.”
But then, in the poem, ‘In His Eyes’, there’s the line, “She crackled with wit like a greenwood fire” and I’m taken from cliché to wonderment in the turn of a page. I was also captivated by the twilight portrayed in the eponymous poem, who “never makes up her mind/ shifts her views from one minute to the next” and Angela Topping’s admission that
......I am a little afraid of her; she leads me
...... into bad company, into strange bars
...... and places I would never go alone.
I suspect these poems are richer than I’m giving them credit for but I’m just saying what I see and hear. And in doing so, like Billy’s students and their hose, I may reveal more about my limitations than the power of the text.
I’m tempted to declare that there’s a careful confidence about Angela Topping’s I Sing of Bricks. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there’s a confident carefulness: a pleasurable crafting of poems on house-holding, life-sharing (‘In His Eyes’), the coming in from outside (‘Sunset over Galway Bay’). Yes, the themes in the beautifully produced pamphlet do range to include sea-faring and ultraterrestrial transcendence; however, these share with the less grandly themed poems an assured phraseology that marks this pamphlet apart.
In the poem ‘Heron’, Topping opens:
...... Before footfall disturbs dew,
...... bamboo flickers and sussurates.
...... The lawn is spotted with apples . . .
At her best, as in these opening lines, Topping harnesses graceful, bold phrasing. The descriptive pacing is enhanced by the excellent management of vowel sounds. The central idea comes expertly into focus in the next stanza:
...... Suddenly, like an apparition,
...... landing, come to steal,
...... wading into the fish pond,
...... a bold heron. His grace,
...... for a moment, astonishes.
“His grace, for a moment, astonishes” is surely a beautiful line. The key to this is the way the parenthesis breaks it into thirds, allowing just enough silence to extenuate the feeling of awe. A fine stanza from a fine poem.
In the pamphlet, as a whole, there’s much to admire. There are clever explorations of objects and events. There are poems on poetry (‘How to Capture a Poem’). In short, plenty to keep one’s interest.
I Sing of Bricks is packed with makings and the already made. What really stands out most, though, is the shaping of each line. The line construction is both the real draw, and the exhibition, of Topping’s talent:
...... The field is dense with poppies,
...... rosebay, and intense blue cornflowers.
...... Harvest mice nest under stalks.
...... Across the water, distant
...... misty tales
...... and our memories.
...... ......[‘One for the Album’]
James Roderick Burns:
Welsh mountains hold I Sing of Bricks stretches the definition of the pamphlet: at 31 poems and 39 pages, it is as long as all of Larkin’s main volumes, and has similar heft. It might perhaps be better described as a compact collection. The book certainly works as we expect books to—cohering around a core set of themes which are reasoned, well-developed and rich. In short, it erects an impressive building from a small pile of bricks.
However, that building—deliberately—is no palace. Angela Topping subscribes to the credo set forth at the beginning of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley:
“Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.”
For this is a book about work—actual work, be it drudgery or stimulation; the work of starting and sustaining relationships; the dreadful work of mourning, remembering the (many) people who have died, and moving with their memory into something new; the work, in short, of life. All the best poems explore it with a wonderful, earthy solidity:
......The drainer’s neat,
...... a small cloth wrung out,
...... draped over the tap.
...... Crumbs have been
...... brushed up. On scrubbed table
...... one empty tea mug stands.
...... ......(‘Kitchen Ghosts’)
......You plunge into earth
......making no moan.
......Supporting your fellows
......is your delight.
......you make up the smallest
......pig house, the grandest manor,
......humble, strong, biddable
......servants, solid as hearth and home.
...... ......(‘I Sing of Bricks’)
......I don’t understand what death is
......that can split us apart like a knife
......parting the green flesh of a plum.
The few poems that stray into more romantic territory— ‘Twilight’, ‘Romance in Middle Age’—seem less successful. This collection shines when it brings the focus round relentlessly to the ordinary. We “grow fat” with Topping in the kitchen; watch for a dead friend’s weeds “that hopefully you sowed” (‘Keeping Faith’); and corner each poem, though “it won’t tell you all it knows”. As we learn at the conclusion of ‘How to Capture a Poem’:
......Release it. It has nothing more to dowith you.
......You’re no more its owner
......than you hold the wind. Never expect gratitude.
Yet, in this solid little house of words, that is exactly what we feel.