In the Glasshouse, Helen Tookey
HappenStance Press, 2016 £5.00
In the poem ‘In the Rose Garden’, someone is cutting herself. The ‘I’ of the poem can see but not hear the others talking on the terrace: she is down in the secluded rose garden, watching the blood on her white skin — a secret perverse fascination.
Yet the poems are quiet. There’s nothing hysterical about them: they’re not asking us to sympathise with pain, they’re matter of fact. In ‘Rain Script’, the language itself is disjointed, set oddly on the page with gaps as if rain has washed some of the words away. They can be read across or down. What happened in the wood? And does it evoke yearning or disgust, fear or curiosity? Who is the man who might be there ‘again’? Was he a lover or a ‘flasher’? The poem balances on an edge, its form mirroring the mental fracturing.
The three or four poems that speak directly of psychological disintegration are ‘held’ in the collection by others that communicate love of landscape: as an infant’s fractured states are held in the mother’s mind. But even landscape, for all its familiar (and sweetly evoked) beauty, is sinister: ‘it is the stuff of longest fear: a grip on your wrist, your hand forced down / into this narrowing space of ferny darkness’ (‘Heptonstall’). Ponds hide bodies that will drag you down, as the thick lily stems would have done from the bridge if your childhood self had gone into the water. In ‘Speke Hall’, ‘there is the ‘anxious sense that this is the place of water’ and that ‘water might rise.’
Yet like breakdown itself, disintegration can bring desired change. The glass of the glasshouse imprisons but what the ‘I’ has always wanted is ‘the destruction of glass […] // an act so irrevocable it takes away my name’. The breaking would be a liberation. Afterwards, ‘changed through and through’, the ‘I’ will ‘walk quietly back into my life’.
Celandine and certainty
I find myself very attracted to these poems. They have a depth, a sense of psychological truths being brought to life, explored and examined. The first poem, ‘Glasshouse’, ends with the paradox at the heart of existence, the glass being ‘complete still but fractured utterly’
There’s a repeated theme of unease often expressed with images of water and people underwater: ‘we are something like the water creatures.’ They slip silently under; whole families lie calmly there in ‘At the Ponds’, somehow alive but also dead. They exude an atmosphere of menace and the possibility of dragging the watcher down.
A parallel idea is beautifully expressed in the poem ‘Rheidol Valley’. This opens with a quotation from Rilke and lives up to it through the sophisticated lyricism and the image of the earth drawing your body down inside it: ‘the earth made grain of you, scattered and sowed you’.
All of which helped me to feel I could almost understand ‘Celandine’ — my favourite poem of the collection. It’s both logical and illogical. As it happens, I have a hedge of my own with celandine growing beside it in the spring so I appreciate the optimism and beauty of the image. Reference to the plant occurs three times in the poem and it becomes something to affirm and to hold on to in a world which contains the threat of the underwater. The pool is a surprise intrusion into the poem but at the same time has great resonance. It holds a man swimming downwards ‘naked and without a name’ and thus more precarious than the flower.
So the drama of the poem makes me imagine a personality drawn to fracture and unease but still hanging on as long as it’s possible to find handholds and sureties (such as the celandine). The plant is described earlier in association with certainty — ‘The certainty that these are celandine’ and the last, very satisfying line of the poem reads:
Only the small yellow flowers are named. The flowers are celandine.