Issue 13


Autumn 2014

 

D. A. Prince, Common Ground, Happenstance, 80pp, £12, hb

This is another of Happenstance’s beautiful hardbacks, following Tom Duddy’s ‘The Years’ and Gerry Cambridge’s ‘Notes for Lighting a Fire’. All three of these books will be a pleasure to own, with their exteriors suggesting, rightly, quality poems within. 

Davina Prince is well known on the little magazine circuit both for her poetry and her reviewing, published in just about every UK poetry magazine you could name, including Antiphon. Both her poems and her reviews are well crafted and particularly attentive to detail, and this volume represents those skills well. There’s a great deal of subtlety in what can appear simple, naturalistic writing, and her choice of subjects, often domestic or mundane belies the precision with which each of these poems is constructed. 

That structure is sometimes narrative or mysterious, as in Perseids, which tells of children attempting to catch a star. A lesser poet would begin along the lines of “when we were eight we thought we could catch falling stars”, but Prince assumes a switched on audience, so her opening is:

We planned to catch one, each of us
and slipped out late into the thickening dark
with Eddie’s brother’s keep-net and a sack.

This small example is indicative of much of Prince’s skill and technique. We infer a group of children from  several clues: “out late”, the notion of a brother with a keep-net, the use of a sack for catching something. We infer that it’s stars that are being caught, from the title. We’re given the innocence of children in the unquestionable belief that such a thing might be possible. And the whole thing seems tangible, real, because of the detail, the immediacy of the event as described. There’s at once something endearing and nostalgic about this idea. It’s as if the poet is saying: “do you, sophisticated reader in your comfortable adult life, remember what it was like to be child? Don’t you yearn for that innocence and immediacy, where anything was possible, and the world was both straightforward and mysterious?”

I get such feelings throughout this book. Nostalgia, or at least, looking back to earlier times, is a common theme. That backward look is not always positive, sometimes merely an account of what things were like, but most often it is wistful, even regretful. There’s sometimes a sense of loss, but it’s the very gentlest sense, and that sense is tempered by the sharp understanding that this is the way of the world. In other words, it’s not a yearning to go back, but an acknowledgement that we will always want to go back, that loss has to be accepted because that’s the way of things, the way we exist. We might say, to be just a little pompous about it, that Prince’s subject is “the human condition”, as illustrated most ably by her title poem:

We peck for something suitable, weighing
the sayable while the black cars glide
untroubled into place. Small stuff,
drawing a line under
another of our parents’ generation.

The human condition, of course, is not one simple thing. In this poem, it’s not the human condition of strife, turmoil, war, depression, angst. It is the human condition of getting used to people dying and the necessary business of it. The phrase “common ground” then has multiple meanings: as the surface subject of the poem, it’s the difficulty of finding things to talk about with strangers at a funeral, what is “sayable”. It is also the common experience we all have, or will have, of watching others die before us, most of whom will not make a great mark on our lives by their passing, but who must be noted in a quiet, “untroubled” way, nevertheless. It is the ground we will all eventually find ourselves in, our common fate, to be placed in a common place, and it is the commons, the common land, the shared social place that we manage in order to live, where we all must communicate, but most of us struggle to talk about what we truly have in common, so settle instead for what is sayable: “we shuffle, cough, offer the last excuse”.

In a poem like this Prince’s wit is evident, but never foregrounded. And she uses that wit to offer her gentle understanding both of the reality of how we behave, and the subcurrents of what this implies about us. It’s there, but it’s implicit in the narrative. And, under inspection, it’s implicit in the language, too, especially in a very careful choice of vocabulary which is almost “everyday” but rarely quite that. It’s possible to read most of her poems as simple accounts, existing on the surface, as ostensibly light verse. And perhaps this describes a handful of them, where she simply notes an interesting idea or angle, a witty observation, focused on the detail of the thing itself, but perhaps with a slight aside about what this says about the world or the people in it. “Dance Class”, for example, pins down the experience, again nostalgic, the girlish struggle both to conform and to express oneself in class. “What’s My Line?”, again nostalgic, captures a weekend TV programme of the 50s and early 60s, pointing the contrast between the “glitter” of the people in it and the “rest of the week” for ordinary people. But most are carefully crafted to do something more than this. 

These typically quotidian, homely, domestic subjects are typically tied down to small lists of concrete details: 

one window
forcing its view of the world, framing
a red-brick gable end, the slanted line
of ridge-tiles flecked with scuffed cement,
two lanky buddleia waving from the slates,
blackened extractor belching burger gas

(‘The Only View’)

This is at one and the same time a specific place, easily imagined, and evocative of a kind of place, a kind of view. In this poem the sense of regret of someone confined to a single viewpoint (presumably, one guesses, old, infirm, immobile – again, the poem does not explicate, we have to infer) is tempered by the continued desire to stay, to watch, to engage with it, to, as the poem doesn’t explicitly say but encodes: “make the best of things” and “carry on”. Even the shitting of a crow is “so beautiful you just can’t bear to leave.” For me, this exactly captures the sentiment of the person too ill to do anything else, but in consequence wringing the last drop of significance from every detail of their world. When you are minded to die, the most trivial things acquire significance, and hold you back. And that’s exactly the force of Prince’s work: the most trivial things acquire significance.

The precision with which she places her accounts are so accurate that they might almost seem to belong to the reader’s own memory. One particular poem did this for me: 

a background
of measured trenches, string and - how it comes back! - 
the wobbly plank up the spoil heap,
the wrist-ache of Roman cobbles,
a post-hole’s stain surrendering its soft dark.

(‘The Rescue Dig’)

This poem is a clever excursion into the past in two senses: it reports on photos of a forty year old dig, and, of course, the dig itself was an interrogation of past times. The poem is set in 1968: “Elsewhere, Paris still counts its wounds, while tanks / crush granite paving on the streets of Prague.” In 1968 I was on a dig at Ludgershall Castle, near Stonehenge, and, for a few moments I thought that perhaps it was that very dig she described so accurately does the detail resonate.

This is in main part down to her skill in assembling detail, and in part to a carefully managed craft. In “Lot’s Wife”, for example, which again looks back in two ways: the poet is looking back to girlhood and school exams, and the subject of those exams is biblical narrative, in this case Lot’s wife, who looked back and was turned to salt. 

She got on God’s wrong side: simple enough
and easy (like the apple) for exams.
We’d spill it like dry beans, and pass.
Move on. Nothing to linger on, unless

How brilliant is that single word “pass”, which is both passing of exams and yet, in doing so, bypassing the meaning of the bible story. The entire story of original sin, by which all mankind is condemned to behave in particular ways, the source of lust and death, becomes “like the apple” – its function merely to be replicated for the exam, not to be understood, even though we, the readers, know at this moment in the girls’ lives, the temptations of the flesh will be soon precisely what distracts them from this learning. There’s irony within irony here, and yet the poem ostensibly is merely a backward look at a moment of (nearly) learning.

This is a wise book, and restrained in what it offers. I suspect it won’t be for every reader for, though its subject matter ranges wildly it nevertheless can seem content with cleverness, as in ‘Responsibilities’ which wittily inverts the relationship between children and irresponsible parents. Or it may feel simply evocative, melancholic, yet without strong purpose, as in The Sunday Night Piano, which is beautifully evocative of unknown music heard in the night after a long, ordinary, day:

A cleaner halts, balanced
on the handle of a long day’s mopping up,
and listens. Blue iron arches
hold back the darkness, poised
over the phrasing. Is it Schubert?

I can multiply examples where it is easy to dismiss Prince’s poems as “merely” x, y or z. Any reader who does this will miss the sensitivity with which they hint, allude, suggest. They remind me in some ways of Jane Austen (a writer I never understood when I used to look for the passionate, histrionic, demonstrative in language – these days I’m a better judge) because they are very civilised, very subtle, and they rely on a reader who is willing to listen for an echo or a whisper or wry hint, and take that as the buoy, almost hidden in the waves, which signals depth.

In the case of “Responsibilities”, for example, the simple inversion of roles is a commentary on how, as life progresses, we each shift from the one to the other, swapping responsibilities, swapping irresponsibilities, wanting to be in one place, but being in another. Whilst the melancholy of “The Sunday Night Piano” (for me, enough in itself) describes how we may be touched through art in ways no reviewer - certainly not the present one - could ever paraphrase; and how what appears ordinary, everyday, trivial can be transformed merely by experiencing it:

He’s left a Lidl bag slumped by his feet,
this man, last of the many players of the day,
bringing to life the loneliness
laid in the keys, his lover’s touch
knowing by heart what’s hidden. One by one
the shops put out their lights. The cleaner stirs...

 

Noel Williams

 

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