Angela Kirby’s latest collection artfully encompasses both broad humour and tightly controlled grief

 Angela Kirby

A Scent of Winter
Angela Kirby
Shoestring Press, 2013
ISBN 978-1-907356-67-4
£9  66pp

Many of the poems in Angela Kirby’s A Scent of Winter deal with memories and stories.  These may or may not be autobiographical but they are certainly closely observed and Kirby skilfully employs a range of voices to tell them.  She uses rueful humour to describe (sometimes self-inflicted) mishaps like unwise romantic episodes; but she writes with serious and steadfast honesty when dealing with life’s unforeseen, and maybe unforeseeable, hurts and tragedies.

We hear both voices within the first two pages of the book.  In ‘Green Wine’ a couple run off to Portugal together but at the end of a week

… We should never go back, he says
on the last night. I should never have come
she thinks, sticky with guilt and sugar

The wry resignation of this poem about the death of romance – one of several involving women beguiled and then let down by men – is immediately followed by the poignant understatement of ‘How It Is’.  This poem wastes no words as it confronts the pain of death itself at a soldier’s funeral which finishes with a bugle call / this shock of fresh dug earth. 

The rest of the poems offer subtle interplay between rueful recognition of human flaws and frailty and quiet demonstrations of loyalty and courage.  These two strands are sometimes combined, as in ‘The Quilt’ which compares the process of recollection with the making of a patchwork quilt from scraps of child’s clothing.  It begins with a blue tweed / jacket her mother buttoned her into and a red flowered frock / found between packets of dried fruit.  Patches from more grown-up garments are then added, like a swatch of silver lamé from a ball dress, until suddenly the catalogue of fabrics is rudely interrupted by non-textiles: his chance / discovered affairs, snowdrops, letters / from his mistresses.  (Observant readers will note that a fuller story of that red flowered frock appears in a later poem.)

Kirby shapes her narratives and reflections mainly in free verse; but her poems are carefully crafted and show a good rhetorical sense.  She understands the value of economy – as for instance when she deftly distils a pre-Raphaelite manifesto into twelve short sharp lines.  She is also good at setting up and delivering an effective punch-line.  She builds up to a neat geological pun in ‘Maine Man’ (whose title is itself a pun) and achieves a perfect slapstick pratfall in ‘Karaoke Night At The Bull’.  (I will not spoil either of these by quoting them.)  What’s more, her surprise endings are not always humorous: a dark shock awaits in the final couplet of ‘The Quilt’.

Kirby also shows considerable skill with poetic images.  In San Francisco, a freight train mourns past us; and a traveller in Europe hears those high unlikely notes // French trains go in for, like sad castrati.  Nostalgia for an abandoned family home is conveyed with unexpected force by the simple observation that the slate shelves hold neither cakes nor cream.  An impending sense of mortality appears in some delicate poems of remembered childhood moments – dancing with her father in the good times / when he’s happy, foot-sure, handsome in his tails or playing in the kitchen and floating on the dog’s plaid cushion / into a sky as red as the tomatoes /Hilda and Nancy are bottling.  Similar feelings of transience are sometimes expressed in terms of the persistence of trivial left-behind objects:

On the bedside table your cup has left a stain
which will outstay you, for you and your new
suitcase have snapped shut …

Elsewhere a woman sets out to plant the cherry trees that will outstay her.

Throughout the collection, language is clearly enjoyed for its own sake.  Unusual words are piled into mouth-filling lists: there is a catalogue of obscure occult terms in ‘Allow Me To Introduce Myself’; and a stream of (what I take to be) archaic theatrical or camp slang runs through ‘Death Of A Dandy Prat’ and ‘The Frig Pig’  These last two poems may cause readers to consult an on-line dictionary!

Here’s a tight one, cullies,
here’s a woolly-crown, a right
Sir Quibble-Queer, tricked out
in caster and farting-crackers,
flashing his cod-fambles, fop-
mincing down Feather-bed lane

Such fondness for extravagant language is one aspect of Kirby’s capacity for bursting into exuberance and relishing the exotic.  ‘Stuck In Ougadougou With You ’ is one of several poems set in faraway places (Ougadougou is the capital city of Burkina Faso) and it contrasts a catalogue of past sexual adventures with the narrator’s present condition which is dear God, I’m stuck / with you in sodding Ougadougou.  A couple of pages further on, the narrator finds herself making new friends in Pennsylvania and then – somewhat more surprisingly –

…in their king size,
no sign of clothes or keys.
You guys are meant to be gay,
I yell, torn between guilt
and pleasure ….

The reader’s imagination is given one further stretch by the collection’s final poem ‘Tying His Feet’ which transposes the myth of Leda and the Swan to modern times and gives it a twenty-first century twist in the process.

Such willingness to be somewhat outrageous may, for some, be the most memorable feature of Kirby’s work.  Indeed it would be quite easy for readers (and audiences) to think of her primarily as a humorous poet.  Careful readers of this book, and her previous two collections, will see clearly that she is equally accomplished at handling more serious moods – as in ‘High Flyer’, where  she describes a woman returning home after saying goodbye to a lover and finding

… your wet footsteps are still leaving
but for a night or two more the bed and I will share
what’s left of you …
                                           … I’ll not hear
as the sea and my future crash against the door.

                                                                                                    Michael Bartholomew-Biggs