Issue One

Autumn 2011

Helena Nelson, Plot and Counter-Plot, 54pp, £9.00
Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Avenue, Beeston, Nottingham, NG9 1BS

Plot and Counter-Plot is the fifth of Helena Nelson's publications, a full collection of forty-eight poems. In some ways they are unfashionable poems. Nelson enjoys traditional form and rhyme, is not reluctant to use unpopular techniques such as deliberate stress on unstressed syllables (e.g. “soilèd sheets” in “The Good Wife”, albeit as part of a deliberately adopted idiom) or build poems that rely on traditional full rhymes and simple vocabulary:

Love is like riding a bicycle of light
spinning on two great wheels of moon and sun,
clean rain in your hair, and the air
kissing your face and tugging your clothes,
balance as sharp as a rush of stars.

There’s also quite a fondness for the rhythms of ballad and song:

and the river was bright and cold
and we paddled and splashed in fun
and were good – as good as gold –
and we shared the gold we spun
                         (The Beautiful Day)

So we might think that’s all that needs saying about this collection. Not so. As with Alison Brackenbury, Nelson not only connects herself to a long tradition of sonorous, strongly rhythmic lyric writing, she works subtly against that tradition to create unique, and perhaps uniquely contemporary, slants upon it.

So, “Imagery” is entirely conscious of what it is doing with “light”, “moon and sun”, “air”, “kissing”, “stars”. It is bringing traditions into play in order to work against them in its second stanza: “but it is only a simile.....Love is not a bicycle...Love will unseat you.” This unseats us. Sure of our ground in the first stanza, reading the grand imagery and vocabulary of romantic love as if it were obvious sentiment, we’re not prepared for it to be undercut by explication in the second stanza. This has the effect of at once affirming the traditional images and undermining them, an entirely modern device. (Well, on reflection, as modern as Donne and Shakespeare at least).

“The Beautiful Day” on the other hand seems only to suggest it should be read at face value. It sustains the simple language of childish pleasure throughout, and affirms the pure truth of simple feeling in the last line: “it was beautiful, and it was true.” So we read as a child might, a poem of simple pleasure. As such it’s not a world away from Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, straightforward expression of sensual pleasure. Except, as “Perfect Day” turns to challenge the possibility of such days – “You’re going to reap what you sow” – Nelson’s echo of Keats may just cause us to step back, too. Perhaps to consider how such days are the construction of memory, the construction of poets, truth in the way they are articulated, not just in themselves.

Again and again in Plot and Counter-Plot I find myself thinking: “this poet wants to express pure lyric ideas in a form any ordinary reader might appreciate”. She’s probably not striving for a populist voice, but she achieves it in some of these poems, providing (again like Brackenbury) approachable poetry readable and attractive, and yet also uses a subtle and sensitive intelligence which understands exactly the choices being made.

Nelson can allow a Blakean straightforwardness to stand in place of detailed observation:

Never a time more sweet
only to sit like this,
only to sit and eat.
        (Just This)

Such verse might have come straight out of Songs of Innocence, being immediately familiar, with its folkloric, nursery rhyme echoes. There’s a purity and light in many of these poems reminiscent of Blake without myth.
But Nelson is presenting these apparently simple verses within a volume of some sophistication, too. Her truth can be as complex as the next poet’s. “Fairy Tale”, for example, uses ballad form to examine a fairy tale personal relationship and its consequent “confusion of form and fact”, which in the end  “dispensed with illusion” to kill innocence: “the Babes in the Wood are dead”. Nelson weaves songs of innocence and experience together.
There are risks in producing such poems. Your audience may mistake simplicity of expression for simplicity of idea, and not search more deeply. The poems themselves may settle for “mere” sentimentality. “Felis Infelix”, for example, records the death of a cat. Perhaps the poem is a tribute, but despite being written a little wryly (“a little bed, a litter tray (clean)”) all it really does is say that it’s sad and pointless when a cat dies.

But I can forgive such gentle sins, for the sake of the superb lyrics that nestle nearby. There is something perfect about a little poem like “Secret”, the poem I’ll quote in full to end this review:

Summer rain at midnight
sweetens the wakeful air.
You won’t forget, you can’t forget
nowhere is everywhere.

Still the rain is singing:
love watches over despair.
I’ve put this into words for you
so you can keep it there.