A Thief in the House: London Launch of Hjelmgaard’s ‘A Second Whisper’

Last night I was at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden for the launch of two new collections from Seren Books. Lynne Hjelmgaard was reading from A Second Whisper and Mary J. Oliver was launching her debut collection, Jim Neat: the Case of a Young Man Down on His Luck. Oliver’s book is a curious, thought-provoking mix of family research and prose/poetic fictions. But I’ve known Hjelmgaard for a few years now as a workshop colleague and as a friend of Dannie Abse and I wanted to gather some thoughts here on her new poems.

In her playfully titled poem, ‘Ode to a Danish Lamp’, Lynne Hjelmgaard constructs a paean to a piece of electrical equipment which ends rhetorically, “Why do you move me so?” Some clues to the answer are scattered through the poem; they lie in comparisons. The lamp is an example of “Nordic metallic cool”, beside which the speaker – “a mere human” – feels humbled. She and the rest of the room, we are told, arrange themselves about the lamp which hence serves as a focal point and even a source of “answers”. It’s as if the lamp is wired up to a clearer, less divided, perhaps purer world:

[. . . ] the charged interior, a territory,

where no country nationality race

or religion has any significance.

In contrast, the human figure is more embedded in a world of time, place and quotidian specificity while the lamp emerges with its “fine, oh so thin aluminium rim” as a denizen of a less troubled realm. The speaker is moved because excluded from such a realm and the majority of the poems in A Second Whisper focus precisely on our more compromised, familiar world, particularly the ‘merely human’ experiences of time, memory and loss.

Without being a particularly philosophical poet, Hjelmgaard writes as someone who is an “expert at loss”. Another less typical poem describes – in great detail – Brooklyn Bridge and the area around it (the poet was born in New York City). She remembers sailing out under the bridge:

Manhattan is a chain with many links,

some are broken, lost and never repair,

but others can be retrieved even at a distance.

For what can shine so brightly at sea

but a city, once loved, left behind?

Hjelmgaard’s focus on links lost or remembered is probably hard-wired into her constitution (these thematic roots usually are) but it has also been provoked by biographical influences. Her 2011 book, The Ring (Shearsman Books) was dedicated to the memory of her Danish husband, Stig – who died in 2006 – and followed an American woman’s travels around Europe, mourning and negotiating that loss. Dannie Abse, among others, praised those poems: “Widowhood allows them to acquire a poignant universality”. Five years later, A Boat Called ‘Annalise’ (Seren Books), was full of more poems of remembrance, evoking the sea journey the newly married couple made out of New York to Europe, via the Caribbean.

There are further poems written to and about her husband in this new book. In ‘As We Silently Agree’, the husband appears to the widow, “in some kind of afterlife”, and is seen busying with a boat’s anchor chain, searching the ship’s log and weather charts. This is perhaps a dream poem:

Our fingers clasp in recognition

as we silently agree:

what does it matter now

if you don’t keep the course?

And ‘Scorpion Hill’ may be another example of dreamwork, the wife this time revisiting a once-shared house in the Caribbean. Its final image is of many moths clustering round “a single light bulb / left on during the night”. These are fine poems of time and sustaining memory – that bulb still burning – in which the past and those lost within it are shown to revisit the survivor.

Hjelmgaard’s treatment of this traditional theme is neither religious nor consolatory in any facile way. The pain of great loss is heartfelt and yet she manages to persuade the reader – it’s less intellectual than that, maybe she draws her readers in to the actual experience – that what lies in the past still retains is power to evoke pleasure and even that the future’s gifts are to be welcomed, even anticipated. In ‘To a Chestnut Tree’, addressing the tree in its autumnal state, the narrator is sure, “There will always be another one. / And another. // Loss can be moved through like a room”. What a magnificent line that last one is. There is a wisdom in it, however modestly it may be presented.

Time takes – but time also provides. Another poem of trees has a fir leaning eventually into a “beloved palm” – though it may take a century or two of slow growth. A lonely tamarisk on a cliff top also has the capacity to “wait until it can drink / from the bay eighty feet below”. Hjelmgaard finds her themes in the smallest incidents. Unpacking a suitcase after a journey, she finds she has brought two extra items home with her. One is a fossil of a snail which seems to represent a determined persistence through time (60 million years perhaps, in this case). The other – a flighty stowaway – is a spider which she finds “already busy / making yourself at home”. The spider evokes an improvisatory optimism, an adaptability, even an adventurousness, which I see as some of the most distinctive elements in the themes of Hjelmgaard’s work.

It’s these qualities to which Gillian Clarke is responding in her comment on A Second Whisper, where she finds in the book “the story of a special late love after bereavement”. In recent years, the British poet who has written most powerfully and movingly about bereavement and the encroachment of the past into the present is Dannie Abse. This is from his poem ‘The Presence’ about the loss of his wife, Joan:

It’s when I’m most myself, most alone

with all the clamour of my senses dumb,

then, in the confusion of Time’s deletion

by Eternity, I welcome you and you return

improbably close, though of course you cannot come.

The opening 14 poems of A Second Whisper explore the loving relationship that sprung up between Hjelmgaard and Dannie Abse after the deaths of Stig and Joan. Her opening prose piece takes us directly into everyday details. The two bereaved poets meet: “And for a time it was the four of us. Though one day, without ceremony, we noted their absence”. Thus set free, the ones still living proceed, though along no clear path, “wherever poetry and Eros chose to take [them]”

Even at their first meeting – on a train journey back from the Torbay Poetry Festival – the presence and absence of time was notable. Minutes were not to be wasted in the presence of the older poet, says the younger narrator. But mysteriously – this is in late October – the waitress at the station café is seen taking away the clock to change the hour. A photograph of the two poets at a reading shows the younger woman “less sure of herself”, while Abse is more comfortable with the attention. But at 85 years old, Abse begins appearing in these poems as more and more in decline. “Aged and dying you grew more tender”, as ‘A Second Whisper’ puts it. In this poem – as in several others – Hjelmgaard is visiting Abse at home.

I knew just how to open your front door quietly.

Its lock a whisper, a second whisper to shut.

This image – absolutely precise in its remembrance, yet also powerfully suggestive – is like the earlier line about walking through loss as through a room. The first whisper has a respectfulness, concerned with quietude, with the sensitivity of the artist, the closeness of death. The second whisper is full of ambivalence: protective perhaps from the noisy, nosey world, wanting to secure the intimacy, wanting to defend the loved one from the inevitable, yet a foreshadowing of that very inevitability.

‘A Thief Is in the House’ has death portrayed as an invader, breathing heavily, thumping up the stairs to the dying figure whose “eyes [are] prepared // for nothingness”. But these poems are not overwhelmed by grief. As if taking a leaf out of Abse’s own poems of mourning and remembrance, Hjelmgaard’s predominant tone is one of recall and revisiting – even of re-visitation. Walking alone on Hampstead Heath, she hears the lost lover chanting a Lorca poem; because one day they sheltered under an awning on Golders Green Road, every time it rains now, “the rain /stops everything / to think of you”. And in an exquisite lyric, ‘Speak to me Again at Dusk’, Hjelmgaard yearns to resume her conversations with the dead poet, yet her tone – which might have been one of pleading and despair – in fact retains a clear appreciation of the lasting value of what has been and a pleasured openness to the present (hear those noisy roosters in a moment!). Such deep-grained attitudes seem to have been a mutual common ground between these two writers and perhaps was one of the constitutive elements in their late-flowering love:

These lines among many lines

are words just for you

and the roosters that speak them

just before dawn.

Reading Archive: April – June 2016

Up-dated June 2016

This is turning out to be the place where I often admit my lacks and ignorance. Elizabeth Bishop – apart from 3 or 4 of the obvious poems – has always been something of a blank spot with me. I have been re-reading her Complete Poems and understanding maybe my problem lies in getting to like her earlier work before A Cold Spring (1955). What I do begin to appreciate more clearly is her modesty, accuracy of observation and own-furrow-ploughing determination as a poet.

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Anne Stevenson’s Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop has been helpful with thoughts such as “Bishop’s instinct was to look hard enough at nature to lose herself in it – and thus, as in the Biblical paradox, find herself”.

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As has Seamus Heaney’s ‘Counting to a Hundred: on Elizabeth Bishop’ (from The Redress of Poetry). He argues, at her best, she reveals how “obsessive attention to detail can come through into visionary understanding  [. . .] intense focus can amplify rather than narrow our sense of scope” (something I have written about in recent thoughts on McGilchrist’s ideas about right/left brain work).

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I’ve also been reading two collections by friends . . .

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Lynne Hjelmgaard’s A Boat Called Annalise (Seren) is a sequence of love poems to a husband and a sailing boat and vies with Bishop in some of its evocations of tropical harbours: “We fell asleep with the roosters, / the waves, rumblings in the bay”. For a land-lubber like me, there are powerful portraits of life at sea such as ‘That Feeling of Boat’: “We confide and trust in twenty tons, / talk to it, nurture it”. ‘White Clover’ is a delicately symbolic poem dedicated to the late, much-missed Dannie Abse.

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Danielle Hope’s Mrs Uomo’s Yearbook (Rockingham), which I mentioned in an earlier blog, again shows how effective the Mrs Uomo character is (a near relation of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito) as a vehicle for social commentary which is quirky, engagingly funny and incisive, particularly about the NHS for which Hope works as a doctor.

Up-dated May 2016

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Last month it was heavy-Hughes (as you’ll see from my April up-date below) so half following that lead and half influenced by the 400th anniversary celebrations across the media, I have been swimming my way through Hughes’ A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse. First published in 1971 and up-dated in 1991, Hughes is right in suggesting it’s been hard to “place” the bard amongst the “poets in English”. It’s not just because he wrote mostly drama (if mostly in verse) but also that critics retreat before his work feebly flapping and gesturing towards a special case. So Hughes’ “looting [of] portable chunks” from the plays serves largely to confirm two things: his plays consist often of the most astounding poetry and that – yes – special case status is hard to withhold.  But Hughes is onto something suggesting that Shakespare’s Catholicism in a world of Puritan jihad (Hughes’ word) has much to do with it. An astonishing read – whatever the rights and wrongs of the case.

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Gill McEvoy’s HappenStance chapbook, The First Telling, is terrific. Told with exquisite poise, it recounts the after-shocks of a rape, the adjustments, the progressive self-forgiveness, the therapy sessions. You need to know the sequence is punctuated by poems about birds – this is not a plain sort of confessionalism, but rather work of great artistry, to be recommended for its use of the blank spaces on the page as much as for its exploration of traumatic experiences.

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McEvoy’s book was noticed (winning the 2014 Michael Marks award); Simon Richey published Naming the Tree (Oversteps Books) in the same year and I’d not heard of it till I heard him read at Poetry in Palmers Green. Richey writes about abstract matters – language, time, consciousness – and material events with a wonderful precision and approaching a philosophical elegance. Something of the impersonality of TS Eliot is matched with personal attentiveness to detail – highly recommended.

Up-dated April 2016

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It’s been a heavy-weight Ted Hughes month since I’ve been reading Jonathan Bates’ biography over several weeks and then supplementing it with the poems themselves. The Bate is far more comprehensive than Elaine Feinstein’s earlier biography and if nothing else shows how much material Hughes left behind (100,000 pages of unpublished drafts) so the academic exploration of it will clearly take many years. On the poetry itself Bate gets a bit irritating in relating  just everything back to Plath –  even the late work apparently shows unmistakable evidence of his continuing obsession with her!

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Crow remains extraordinary though it makes more sense to see it as Bate suggests as the unfinished epic that Hughes had hoped to complete. There was to be a phase of restoration but Hughes never managed that – perhaps because this was too close to the two suicides of Plath and Assia Weevil.

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I’d missed Remains of Elmet when it was originally published. With Bate’s help and Hughes’ own Note from 1993, it’s clear now that this is a very coherent and powerful portrait of the region of his childhood.

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I loved Gaudete when it first appeared in 1977 as I was in the first flush of my Hughes period! Most commentators (including Hughes it seems) now consider the ‘filmic’ loosely-constructed narrative poems as not quite the real thing. It’s the strange, tough little songs of Nicholas Lumb that conclude the book that pay more dividends.

Dannie Abse’s Memorial Celebration – 25.03.15

He remains a man who it feels impossible to confine to the past tense. So said Jeremy Robson, one of the speakers at Dannie Abse’s celebratory memorial event held in Kings College Great Hall on Wednesday evening this week. Indeed more than a few of those who had come to remember him, confessed they half expected Abse to be there himself, still large as life. Carol Ann Duffy imagined he’d want to “get outta here” – too much poker-faced reverence – and, yes, it was easy to imagine him somewhere still working away at his set goals – 5 or 6 publishable poems a year and every 5 years a collection of his marvellously accessible, witty and moving poems. How often did he achieve his own expectations of a good poem: that the reader should enter it sober, but leave it drunk.

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Beneath a projection of this marvellous photo of Abse, Paul Gogarty oversaw the readings and recollections, immediately plotting the four compass points of the poet’s life: poetry, family, chess and Cardiff City FC. Lynne Hjelmgaard (Abse’s partner for the last 6 years) read the mysterious, life-changing visitation recorded in ‘The Uninvited’ (the only poem he would re-publish from his first book, After Every Green Thing) as well as her own moving poem in tribute to him. Alan Brownjohn, recalled his friendship with Abse and his direct acquaintance with the source materials of the two powerfully dark poems he chose to read: ‘Three Street Musicians’ and ‘A Night Out’ (the latter discussed in my earlier blog).

Tony Curtis alluded to another of Abse’s much quoted poetic observations: “I start with the visible and am startled by the visible”. He argued that, though not conventionally religious, the poet was a deeply spiritual man who could perceive the invisible through the visible. This was demonstrated in Owen Sheers’ reading of the extraordinary ‘In the Theatre’ in which a surgeon incompetently meddles with a patient’s brain (this was around 1938, only a local anaesthetic) only for the dying man to cry out hauntingly, ‘Leave my soul alone’. Sheers said this was the first Abse poem he ever heard – on a tape playing in his parents’ car apparently. Imagine the quiet drone of the engine after lines like these: “that voice so arctic and that cry so odd . . . to cease at last when something other died./ And silence matched the silence under snow”. A memorable moment, leading Sheers to dispute the reading of this particular poem with Andrew Motion, who gracefully withdrew (the English rightly ceding to the Welsh on this occasion, Motion observed) and chose instead to read ‘Apology’. Motion also recalled meeting Abse at an early Eric Gregory do and asking him (as a judge of competitions) how he approached the task of whittling down the thousands of entries. Easy, Abse apparently replied, throw out every poem containing the word ‘myriad’.

Abse’s daughter Susanna painted a more domestic picture of husband and father, a lover of all sorts of games including quizzes, board games, sing-songs on long car journeys, casting spells on recalcitrant traffic lights and pretending to talk to John Lennon on the family phone. She also recalled his “visceral” sense of loss when Joan was killed in the car accident in 2005. Only through the act of writing his memoir, The Presence (2008), and the poems later published in Two For Joy (2010) did he slowly return to something like a normal life. Elaine Feinstein read ‘White Balloon’ (“Auschwitz made me / more of a Jew than ever Moses did”) and ‘St Valentine’s Night’, the latter reminding us of Abse’s achievement as a poet of both erotic and uxorious love. Carol Ann Duffy had earlier read ‘A New Diary’ and Gillian Clarke chose the much-anthologised, neo-Romantic ‘Epithalamium’ (“Singing, today I married my white girl / beautiful in a barley field”) which she followed with her own response to it, ‘Barley’.

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Perhaps most movingly there were several clips of Abse reading his own work (mostly from Ian Michael Jones BBC film series Great Welsh Writers). So the poet himself completed the evening with his reading of ‘The Presence’, the heart-rending lament for his wife, Joan, which surely everybody assembled in Kings Great Hall, beneath its classical white pillars trimmed with gold leaf, felt should now be addressed to the author himself:

It’s when I’m most myself, most alone

with all the clamour of my senses dumb,

then, in the confusion of Time’s deletion

by Eternity, I welcome you and you return

improbably close, though of course you cannot come.

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