So that's five pamphlets in all this year from HappenStance, fewer than usual — yes this is true. But each is packed with rarities.
When I think of any one of them, visual images flood my mind. In The Violin Forest, there's that lovely violin on the jacket, shaded with leafy branches. And inside the poems, there's an abandoned harmonium in a Sussex wood, and a dead fox, 'laid out on the road like a fox diagram'. Some bluebells have 'finished talking' and lain down 'under the tall beeches', and an old man (a luthier, no less) 'comes / to the forest walking and tapping in winter'. To read the poems is to enter a thinking space, green and leafy. You read, and re-read. When you come out, you have that Rip-Van-Winkle feeling. How long have you been gone?
And Smile Variations — here the jacket image evokes music too. There's a stave, and odd note-like symbols, and a treble clef, all moving in a circle, dynamic and strange. Inside the poems, there's fluidity and strangeness too, even where the situation is (almost) familiar. For example, a child listening to parents talking hears their voices as 'the muffled stuff of breath, a broken river'. Soon a smile 'has escaped over high walls'. Later that smile has 'snapped shut'. Perspectives are 'perilous', 'dwindling between hills'. I'm reminded of Alice in Wonderland where the reader identifies with a child's perspective, learning to make sense — a new sense, but never a non-sense: 'Sentences open in the morning / with nothing to hold them up.'
And Rachel Piercey's pamphlet, Disappointing Alice, has Alice stuck in the desert, begging her friends to come and save her. But they won't — 'the topsoil of their affection was thinning'. What's going on? There's a medieval damsel on the jacket, with a magnificent pointy headdress, but the narrator of 'Love' has 'one hand upon the latch' and 'one hand upon the axe'. There are heroines here, certainly, but being Eve, or Cinderella or Amelia Earhart — what does it mean? Who can damsels trust to save them when the damsels may be scamming? A teenager plays Miranda in a school production of The Tempest but she alters the end of the play completely. Forget Naples. Here Miranda stands in the sand waving off 'the boat of lordly men' before going back to the island with Ariel and Caliban to 'start again'.
Then Claire Crowther's Knithoard — this is different from all the others. Of course, it comes out of knitting, that traditional women's craft, that safe woolly pursuit. But this sequence of poems calls risk, fear and fragility into its meditative frame. Loosely based on the French medieval fatras form, it comprises a series of eleven-line poems, each with an introductory couplet. You could read the entire work as being about art. Or life. Or love. Into this, the lovely language of knitting is bound. A 'notion', for example, means (there is a helpful Glossary) 'any item of knitting equipment'. In 'Tension' the speaker says 'I am instructed over and over: / Change your yarn, / use bigger notions'. 'The readiness is all', as Hamlet said, and here that preparedness is in the final section: 'I will finish abandoned garments, cast off all / those vests sleeping in bags and drawers, / all the unfinished [ ... ]'.
The last shall be first and the first shall be last. The first pamphlet to appear this year was Lydia Kennaway's A History of Walking, which has now walked its way into many homes. There are two footprints on the cover, each with lines from poems written into them. And the poems are all about walking, and much more. There's Buzz Aldrin bouncing across the surface of the moon; there's Little Red Riding Hood, and Goldilocks; there's a baby taking her first steps; there's an old woman who has walked, and fallen, and will never get up. There's rage and mischief, and politics and desperation, and energy and fun. And there's 'Walking for Water', the image of which stays with me perhaps most clearly of all, because of what it is not:
Walking for water is not
to see an unmissable sight.
It is not on anybody's bucket list.
It is the flight of a migrating bird,
a cruel calculation of distance, fuel
and energy burned.
[Go here to hear Lydia reading this poem precisely as it should be heard.]