REVIEW by C M Buckland

NWR Issue r29

In Her Shambles

by Elizabeth Parker

The thing that struck me the most about Elizabeth Parker’s first full collection was the pleasing constellations of poems that emerged in the reading. I found it hugely satisfying that the poet returned to a theme, sometimes more than once, in the course of In Her Shambles. It gave the work a kind of framework and a sense of careful design. This was reassuring and made me feel that I was in safe hands from the outset.

The poems, ‘Piano’ and ‘Bechstein’ are the first obvious grouping to me. The former notes the attention span of children as they watch an instrument tuner at work on their upright piano. How focused they are as he toils! ‘He wiped the wires, wrapped them in felt, / capped pins with a wrench, twisted, / flicked his fork, picked a string,’. This level of concentration is not, however, mirrored by the children’s music practice and, before long, a loose piano key has gone missing and their interest in mastering the instrument wanes. ‘None of us kept it up.’

In ‘Bechstein’, the poem speaks of the end of a relationship and how a lover’s father’s upright piano becomes a focal point of rum-fuelled evenings. ‘I back away / when you slam the fallboard / unable to remember even the old tunes / you’ve kept safe in your fingers for years.’ I wondered whether the narrator of ‘Piano’ was now the woman of Bechstein; and whether in these two poems, the instrument denoted an inevitable shelf life of all interests, of all passions.

This idea of poems forming clusters continued with ‘Lizzie’ and ‘Clear’, two pieces that deal with different kinds of exhumations. There was also a poignant group dealing with relationship breakdowns from a female perspective: ‘Crockery’, ‘Clasp’ and ‘Writing Him Out. There are some potent lines in the piece entitled ‘Clean’: ‘There is only my shadow on the wall / fist unfurling to drip wreckage.’ Further couplings of poems include ‘Lavinia’ and ‘Lavinia Writes’ which both refer to the character in Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus’, with Parker not allowing Lavinia to be muted. ‘Hands’, meanwhile, seems to sit with ‘Manus’; and in the latter, a piano is again referenced.

In addition to these groups, there are some arresting, seemingly stand-alone poems; my favourite of which is ‘Rescues’. As someone who has written for New Welsh Review about my attempts to save a bat (‘Action Versus Inertia’, February 2017), this poem really chimed with me. ‘Barely-there weight of the pipistrelle / he scooped from the outdoor loo / as if a bit of night had torn away / wafted through.’ This tender piece tells of a father – perhaps the poet’s own – and how, over the years he has saved birds, deer, mice and even a buzzard. There is never a hint that the father should not intervene; his overriding instinct is to do something, even if, ultimately, he cannot save the creature in distress. I love the final stanza of the poem in which the father’s children become like fledglings in a nest themselves: ‘His three daughters / calling to him from their cities / shrill cry of the phone / his voice, still Brummie- soft, / saving us each time.’

Another very touching poem which I went back to time and again was ‘Sipped’. It opens with the lines, ‘As the Sunday city turns from light, you’re burning weeds,’. Immediately we are plunged into autumnal grey and a sense of the weekend and the year completely closing in. The narrator’s partner is busy clearing the garden of summer’s now dead growth, and in so doing, becomes entangled and cut, ‘Brambles sprinkle your arms with nicks.’ When the gardener finally comes indoors, the narrator tends to his scratches with a healing, mother-made balm. The piece closes with a lovely juxtaposition of a smoky aroma produced by a wool jumper on a radiator, with the steamy wafts of a chicken cooking in the oven. This was a very down-to-earth and recognisable scene, delightfully evoked. Here the poet showed how well she could assemble a truly vivid image in relatively few lines.

The title of this first full collection by Elizabeth Parker hints at disorder and disarray. For this reason, you might be forgiven for expecting a very eclectic mix of styles and subjects in this work. But there is no evidence of anything shambolic in this carefully assembled group of poems. There is a real joy to be had here in finding your way around these poetry constellations and watching the stars come out. It must be said that some of them shine with great magnitude. A highly recommended read.

CM Buckland is a poet and reviewer.

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previous review: Caradoc Evans: the Devil in Eden
next review: The Glass Aisle


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