Reviewed by Roy Marshall, Nick Asbury and Peter Jarvis
We learn from the cover of this HappenStance pamphlet that Peter Gilmour found writing a necessity after his wife’s suicide. Much in Taking Account deals with this tragedy and the complexity of the grieving process over a period of twenty years. It is not surprising that given this time span, the experience is approached from many angles.
In ‘Spoiled Print’ there is an acknowledgement that recollection and reflection are not performed in stasis:
It might depend on where we do the remembering,
how the arrow flies. The past is moving.
‘Off to school’ disturbingly and powerfully presents the suicide by factually and bleakly describing details. In contrast, ‘Rupture’ seemingly deals with the death through distorted mirrors of consciousness and dreamlike states. ‘Solicitude’ is a heart-breaking remembrance of the effect of the death upon the couple’s young children. All are dealing with the ‘moving’ past and, given the subject matter, none are easy reading. At times I almost felt like an intruder, but Peter Gilmour has chosen to share his deeply personal reflections and I admire his bravery and feel humbled to be given insight into his experiences.
I found it difficult to judge or comment on the writing skill and style given the emotional effect of the subject matter. I very much admired ‘Different kinds of beast’, a poem which is personal and universal and brief. It is all the more striking and haunting for dealing with a ‘big theme’ in ten pared-down lines. I liked ‘Convalescence’ for the same reason.
The colour of the flyleaf as you open any HappenStance pamphlet is always a clue to its contents. This one is black. The sombre mood is already clear from the back cover, which explains how Peter Gilmour returned to poetry late in life following his wife’s suicide. Writing from grief is an impulse as old as writing itself, but it’s a tough thing both to write and to read. There is the ever-present danger of the writing buckling under the emotional weight it is expected to bear and descending into sentimentality or public self-therapy. With any such collection, I find myself rooting for the poet, hoping they can find the words to match the experience.
It’s a patronising impulse on my part, and in this case unnecessary. Peter Gilmour writes with admirable restraint and lack of sentimentality. The second poem, ‘Off to school’, ends like this:
I imagine now that some time later,
mid-morning perhaps, she rose to dress—
shower perhaps, fastidious to the last—
and, painfully ready in her painting clothes,
abstracted still, sought out that basement room.
I imagine her almost dead by noon:
.....(The Famous Grouse).
This is some of the best writing in the collection: at once conversational and unmannered, but also extraordinarily taut. The double ‘pain’ in ‘painfully’ and ‘painting’. The gentle play on ‘abstracted’, followed by the sudden particularity of ‘The Famous Grouse’. Coming from a day job in copywriting, I have a particular interest in brand names appearing in poetry—this one produces a powerfully specific and arresting effect.
Given the subject matter, many readers will be reminded of Ted Hughes’s The Birthday Letters: an intimidating comparison for any writer. This collection does not have the same mythic sweep, but there are similarities: a sense of gods, demons and ghosts moving darkly behind the temporal human drama. Come the final poem (‘Dying’), there are “hints of glory” as the poet stands by his mother’s side at the approach of death:
On that last morning, the fence posts seemed to cast upwards
fingers of light, as though substance was becoming ether
and beyond, where the firs and poplars drop from the scene,
we saw, light beyond light, a kind of cradling radiance.
And a few lines later:
We seemed to see these things together: she from her bed,
I standing by her, one hand with spread fingers on her back
(wasted now like the rest of her), the other pointing,
with amazement, I imagine, at these hints of glory.
I have some difficulties with the language, or more accurately the diction, of these poems—there are moments where I feel it slips into an archaic poetic mode that doesn’t quite hit home. That phrase “hints of glory” feels very Wordsworthian, the reference to “ether” has a Victorian air, and the “a kind of” construction that precedes “cradling radiance” is something the poet uses more than once.
But this is a fine collection that has the feeling of being honed over a long period of time, and released into the world only when it is ready. I came away from it with a feeling of respect for the writer and a renewed faith in the power of language to take on the darkness.
This accomplished collection is the transmutation into poetry of years of anguish caused by the suicide of the poet’s wife and its impact on the family.
I married a woman who killed herself.
Our children then were thirteen and fourteen And I, fifty
The four sections of Taking Account are framed by her death and another, probably of the poet’s mother. The poems are sombre (an adjective recurring three times), saturated with mortality. Yet for the poet, gradual signs of recovery emerge to allow a fitful return of his creative energy. The final two poems show a strong upsurge of spiritual consolation in the face of death, not present elsewhere in the collection. Periodically Gilmour feels an imperative to submit himself to a self-assessment exercise to take account of his moral or perhaps spiritual progress—‘Husbandry’, ‘Reckoning’, ‘Journey’s end’, ‘Finally’, ‘Convalescence’.
Most of the poems of the powerful first section apostrophise the dead woman. ‘Rupture’ is full of foreboding. A bizarre car-accident, with the vehicle plunging across fields is a trope for the state of their marriage ‘’hurrying . . . to a hot and hellish end’’. This rupture in the relationship is only one, though the most significant, among other fissured relationships in the collection—‘Off to school’, ‘Genealogies’, ‘Out of step’, ‘Journey’s end’.
‘Solicitude’ discloses most about the impact of the suicide on the children and their father. The younger son “looked for her in the stars’’, his weeping “a sound as of crushed laughter’’. The older son just “hugged himself, gently rocking’’. All three “dithered in our orbits,/ wobbling off course into greater darkness’’, home now “the gaunt dishonoured abiding place’’. Part of their solicitude involves mixed feelings about the possibility of her becoming a revenant. Should they move house: “how on earth would she find us/ if she ever came back?’’ Poignantly the boys decide to leave messages about the garden “where she once planted flowers’’. The poet’s own messages surely constitute this collection.
The dead woman has left an arrangement of stones and pebbles on the hearth “like standing stones in stillness on a moor.’’ These relics, which he cannot bring himself to remove, begin to exert an unsettling power on the poet (’Stones and pebbles’) and he imagines a supernatural nocturnal agency working on them until eventually they might express themselves audibly to him “in many tongues’’. Could her voice be among them?
The turning-point in Taking Account, evidenced by the title, is ‘Convalescence’, where the governing image once more is stones. Feeling his spirits beginning to lighten, he tests himself by taking up a stone “to weigh it in my hands’’. He takes another, then another, “approaching noon/ with the light sweat of simple achievement’’. With this ritualistic behaviour he constructs a stone circle “wider than I had intended’’, which might signal some return of creative potential. Finally he steps into his stone circle “to take account of myself, to stand and wonder’’.
Gilmour is strict on himself in his need for continual self-assessment. How this connects with his wife’s suicide is hard to decide, unless guilt or illness are factors. The personal account-taking occurs in ‘Husbandry’ and ‘Finally’. The best instance is in ‘Reckoning’ where he is a mountaineer on a climb—“I have got to some sort of limit here’’—and attempts to measure himself against fellow climbers: is he higher or lower? And does it even matter? Perhaps he is assessing his poetic development as well. He certainly seems restless:
For how long a reckoning of this sort,
this measuring of reach and stamina
this weighing in the scales, these comparisons?
A slow spiritual awakening that seems to have taken the poet by surprise makes its emergence in Taking Account. In ‘Solicitude’ he was harshly dismissive of the professional and other comforters around him:
There were no doctors who knew what to say
and no clerics who knew how to listen
and how can they who lack holiness know
how the unhallowed spirit sticks and dies?
What a departure from this earlier nihilism has come about by the last two poems! The dying woman in ‘Last place’ seems attended by “a bright self ’’ above her, “waving in consolation, ecstatic gestures/ that appeared to lift like birds’’. He sees this as a “kind of blessing’’. And ‘Dying’ relishes “a kind of cradling radiance’’.
Taking Account is formally conventional. There are a couple of poems in syllabics, there are modern sonnets, and poems in verse paragraphs. Most are stanzaic and unrhymed. If the collection is considered as a journey out of agonising experience and its sombreness allowed for, then it is an extremely impressive achievement.
The Common Reader says:
I liked ‘Rupture’. The writer was not in charge of the car as it careered wildly and neither was he in charge of the marriage. It seemed to me it was a poem about the end of a relationship. It’s mad, it’s crazy, it’s catastrophic and, like the end of most relationships “no-one seemed to have noticed”. The madness and chaos goes unnoticed and when it stops, they walk off in different directions. A good ending: “something needed to be reported”.