Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Anna Dickie's "Heart Notes"

There's no way of knowing whose poetry will stick in your head once you've read it. Sometimes it is the work of a poet you consider to be one of your well-loved favourites that does the trick and that's good in a way because it's reassurance that you do like what you think you like and therefore you're not a complete idiot (hurray!). Other times the words that stick are the work of someone (met or unmet) who you really don't like (for a variety of reasons) and that's good too...really, it is! It means you are challenging your own assumptions and your tired old sense of self - plus it means you really are still open to new things and not a boring old stick-in-the-mud (hurray again!). Then there is another possibility - sometimes the work that grabs you has been written by someone you really don't know at all. Maybe this writer doesn't have a high profile (national or international) or maybe you don't know them personally or socially in any sense. Whatever and whoever they are it's a very simple matter - their words and forms just do that magic thing (they speak to you, they work for you, they switch things on in your head).

I suppose reading Anna Dickie's "Heart Notes" (Calder Wood Press 2008) fits the latter category for me. Anna is a fellow blogger (she blogs as Apprentice) and she lives south of here (but on the same east coast of Scotland) but I haven't had a huge amount of communication with her on this system (at least not until recently). I've seen her name at Barbara Smith's, at Colin Will's (he's her publisher and friend, I think) and probably at a few other places but I don't really know her at all. Colin introduced us at the annual poetry rollercoaster that is StAnza this year but it was in the Poets' Market and it was busy and noisy and it's hard to meet people for the first time in a place like that and get beyond a 'hello, lovely to meet you' (and really it's more awkward than lovely...). I picked up 'Heart Notes' then but I couldn't read it properly in that kind of environment plus I'm afraid a rose on the cover is a put-down rather than a pick-up for me (hard to explain issue...) so picking it up was as far as I got that time. Anna is a marvellous photographer so this is no critical comment on her cover image – just to do with my tastes really. Here is the cover while we're on the subject.

So what next, rambler? Well, then some time went by and Anna and I had some communication and I offered (as I do) a book swap and she said 'yes'. You might be interested to know that only one writer has ever ignored such a request and no-one has ever said no. Even some quite fancy big-name types have agreed to it so it's always worth asking I think. So we swapped and she got my badly behaved poems and I got her book with the rose on the front. And what did I make of it? Why, friends, I fell in love with it. Bits of it are in me now, stuck in my head, fighting for space. I think I might even like roses more now too.

So what do I like about this book/chapbook/pamphlet? Firstly please remember that I have no pretensions or desire to be a poetry critic - in this context I am a reader, plain and simple and that's all I want to be. Poetry criticism puts me to sleep on the whole (though I have tried really hard to keep awake whilst reading it). To me it so often rips the heart out of good writing (while it's trying really hard to show you where it is). It's a strange business.

Anyway. Back to "Heart Notes"...and my 'written in the style of a ten year old' thoughts on it.

I like the first poem, "Flown", which is a delicious note to a just-left-home son with two words that I love ('cauliflower' and 'cheese') in the first line. The poem is unpretentious, funny, gentle and so packed with love and care (for boy and for words) that it makes my heart bang when I read it. 'Heart notes' indeed. Off to a great start.

I like food...a great deal...and there's a lot of it in this book so I'm in luck. Anna starts with the cauliflower cheese but then moves on through wild berries, a honeymoon marinade, candyfloss, some wild garlic...Best to have a snack to hand when you read it. Just in case.

I don't like gardening (my Mum says I will eventually...) but Anna does (she's even going to be on a gardening TV programme soon – see here). All I can say is that if anything will convert me to gardening it might be Anna's poem "Ordering Chaos, Playing God". The last two lines are particularly good (and I'm not going to tell you what they'll have to go and find the whole poem).

I like limpets...the whole shape and idea of them...and Anna has a terrific limpet=the narrator poem on page 18 called "Fixture" (great title too). It would make a good postcard - in fact lots of these poems would. Scottish Poetry Library...are you listening?

I like quiet dogs and the dogs in this book are often present but are always...reserved...observing...quiet. Good dogs.

I like the poem "Light Fantastic" (p.23) that's about dancing, 'in boots', in a wood, on your least I think she's on her own...she does say:
'No-one watches, not the bored dog,
or the surprised roe deer.'
(Told you the dogs were quiet). Now would I be right in thinking that lots of readers of this blog are prone to the odd bout of booted, lone wood-dancing? Or that lots of readers of this blog would be prone to such activity given half a chance? Yes, I thought so.

I like clever use of language. To get a poem (like "Still" – page 27) to (I suppose) breathe new life into the phrase 'still life' is admirable. I read...and admire. I think 'that's clever, that is'. And it is.

I like gentleness...more and more...and that's handy because "Heart Notes" is a book of gentle thoughts very carefully expressed. It is 'Nordic dots' of lonely geese, it is tending 'the down-at-heel', it is the 'soft, sedimentary slab' of Jewish gravestones in Prague. The subject matter is vast but the approach is always focussed, clear and somehow concerned with showing and sharing.

I should say that there are one or two things I'm not so sure about (in the interests of balance). For example, I'm really not sure about the last line of "Untouched" (page 25). The poem ends on a question and the sound and nature of it make me uncomfortable. Has she spoilt a very good poem with that last line? And then I think...well, feeling uncomfortable...that's not such a bad thing is it? Do we want all poems to make us comfortable? (Surely not.) Don't I do all kinds of weird things in my lay-outs and poetry choices that no doubt make lots of other poets uncomfortable? You bet...sometimes I can hear them writhing and groaning even from miles away. I'd better shut up and move on then, hadn't I..? Er, yes.

And so to finish. I think all poetry reviews (even ones written by ten year olds) should include a complete poem and one of my very favourite poems in "Heart Notes" is "Transported" so, with Anna's permission, I will reproduce the whole thing here. A lot of poems have been written about being in hospitals or doctors' waiting rooms, about illness and facing death but still Anna (who has written on the blog and in poetry about her encounter with cancer) manages to do something quite perfect with it all here.


I'm early – I'd be early for my own execution.
Killing time I choose three secondhand books
of poetry to rehome from the shelves at Shelter,
then I wander off to wait my turn.

In the corridor I step back to allow a trolley by
and my eyes smart as a bald woman,
curled up in the foetal position,
gets eaten by the lift.

Surrendering my appointment card
I take a seat, as ever the room's crammed
with silent women. Eyes look past eyes
until I remember the books. I'm laughing along
with Wendy Cope when my name's called.

The rest was just routine.

Anna Dickie

You can buy "Heart Notes" from Calder Wood Press ('Sales' page).



Regina said...

A wonderful post, Rachel- and thoughtful, too. I try to read different poets all the time as my style is so eclectic as it is... it serves me, it encourages me to keep on writing as I do.
Thanks so much for the info on Anna- and her poem was touching indeed. Never having had the experience of which she writes about in Transported, like all good poems, by the end of the reading, I feel as if I have... I was there with her in that waiting room...
Well done, Anna- and thanks again, Rachel.

Rachel Fenton said...

I really wnjoyes your nuanced response to this poetry. A great post.

apprentice said...

Rachel thank you so much for this. I'm grateful to you for the time you've devoted to it,for the close reading you gave to the poems and for you considered and measured response.

I know Colin, as my publisher, is also pleased too.

You are a generous soul and I'm grateful our paths have crossed.
And I will convert you yet to a love of roses, they are complicated plants, with an amazing history. The poem about them is based on a garden I volunteer in, which grows roses from 4 different centuries, 17th, 18th,19th and 20th.Like us they have come a long way, and not always to the best result.

Rachel Fox said...

RB - I think you would really like Anna's book.

RF - were you typing with buttery fingers?

A - it's always weird hovering around posts about your own work, isn't it? And roses, yes, I am open to conversion in this area! Did you read my sort-of rose poem (back here)? There's another one in my book ('Rosebuds all'). Maybe I'm halfway converted already!


deemikay said...

Interesting... I may investigate. :)

Rachel Fox said...

I know...and suddenly I feel surrounded by photographers!

apprentice said...

I like the Lonely Rose poem, they do tend to fire on up above other things dont' they?

These wet summers are spoiling the many layered cabbage forms as often they fail to open at all due to petal damage.

I like the species roses, like Rosa Glauca, on flush but very pretty with lovely foliage too.

Rachel Fox said...

OK, A, sign me up for the all-I-need-to-know-about-roses workshop! It might be a long session.

Colin Will said...

And I remember, when I was Librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, doing the research which established exactly which rose Robert Burns wrote about in 'My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose'. It's the bud on the dog rose, which starts red then opens pink. Personally, I like damask roses.

Unknown said...

Yes, Rachel, it is a very good collection and you've reminded me to go up and find it and re-read it again. Brill review BTW!

Rachel Fox said...

Oh Colin, my knowledge of roses is far more linked to Cadbury's...

And makes me think too that this is yet another advantage of blogs over papers and magazines - we don't have to write about new books...we can write about something that came out last year (decades ago in the mind of an arts editor!). With poetry I think this is particularly anyone can write regularly, thoughtfully and/or usefully about new poetry books is beyond me. It takes a while to come to a worthwhile opinion on a poetry book very often (sometimes that while is years!) and whilst that isn't much help to publishers/authors wanting to shift books it is true I think. I wonder if some of you might dig out a book from some time in the past few years and review it (or re-review it) with the benefit of a good chunk of time to let it all sink in.


Rachel Fenton said...

It's the chocolate, it gets everywhere, very myummwy though!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I've yet to write a chocolate poem (as in a poem about chocolate). Now that would be a love poem! And I'm not one of these people who only get excited about organic hardcore expensive chocolate. I pretty much like all of it.

Dick said...

Great post, Rachel. I've followed Anna's blog fitfully, but will now get stuck in with a will!

Rachel Fox said...

She's good, on her blog, at saying a lot with not so many words. Always great visuals too.