Fiona Sinclair explores the complexities of Angela Topping’s collection Paper Patterns which deals with profound emotion and also with the pleasantly domestic.

 

Paper PatternsTopping_9781909252035_cover
Angela Topping
Lapwing Press
ISBN 9781909252035
£10

 

This is a literary photo album examining characters and events from a life.  Its subject matter involves family and friendship. The collection is divided into sections, each having its own narrative yet still keeping a focus on the main ideas.  I was particularly impressed by the sense of completion given by the final poem ‘In Kew Gardens’ which serves to draw all the sections to a holistic conclusion.

The narrator’s family were Irish immigrants. Yet ironically, the poems long not for Ireland but for Liverpool, the city were her ancestors first fetched up/from another world. However, being farmers, they did not stay there but left Liverpool behind, walking upriver to a nowhere town with other failures. The word ’failure’ hints at an ultimately unsuccessful decision. Thus, despite being born on ‘Mersey shores’ the character feels that a true ‘scouser’ must be born in and remain in that city. The poem ‘LIverpudlians’ delineates all the qualities its inhabitants possess and that she aspires to They take no crap for anyone, have a caustic wit.  A sense of her own rootlessness is felt as she writes with envy of a Liverpudlian’s feeling of rootedness wherever they are in the world, a pull so strong, it drags them home to die.

This tribute to Liverpool ends the first sequence of poems and neatly introduces a section specifically focusing on the narrator’s family.  Entitled ‘The Lightfoot Letters’,  it begins with the extraordinary coincidence of an artist friend of the writer buying a bundle of old letters for the stamps which on closer inspection turn out to be correspondence between Topping’s relatives dated around 1923. The letters therefore throw light on the childhoods of her aunts and father. This event has about it an air of mystery reflected well in Topping’s specific and accurate use of the word ’awe’ as it dawns on her that these letters are indeed those of her relatives.

The poem ‘Tomorrow ‘develops the sense of kinship felt throughout the collection.  It deals with the narrator’s looking forward to being able to set about reading the correspondence the following day. The repetition of the word ’Tomorrow’ effectively reveals her anticipation.  I liked the idea that opening the letters would be a kind of consummation, bringing the person closer to her family. This is felt in the almost sexual need to hold the (letters) in hands that will shake and ache to touch paper’, the internal rhyming aiding this feeling of desire. This is further felt in the visceral use of sealed with their saliva, my DNA.   Yet  it transpires that this ache and longing to feel connected with her family  is in fact  driven by a desire to be closer to the father figure. For as a self-confessed ‘Daddy’s girl’,  one of the most striking relationships in the collection is the bond between the narrator and her father. This strong relationship was heralded in the first poem concerning the discovery of the letters with the final line bringing me my father, lost so long ago. Its intensity is reiterated in ‘Tomorrow’ with a subtle use of word order aches to touch papers my father, grandfather, grandmother.

‘Father’ then appears in almost all the poems in this section, with one piece dedicated to him as a child ‘Father, Skating’. This poem has a delicate blend of emotion and technique. I particularly liked the way the narrational tone reverses the father-daughter dynamic, with the writer seeming to mother him: Lean into the wind father.  There is sadness in the voice but Topping avoids sentiment as she does throughout the collection. Instead in this piece she makes excellent use of sound to evoke the physical enjoyment of skating – Skate on enjoy the free flow as your blades whistle on free ice. Whilst not actually onametaepic, these clipped words and alliteration create a fine sense of speed and counterbalance the pervading sense of sadness for a childhood that will crash to its ending.

The collection then moves on to another relationship, an elegiac sequence dedicated to the narrator’s late friend ‘Matt Simpson’. This is an intriguing relationship. The writer teases the reader by never quite allowing us to know if the affair was sexual or platonic. What is made clear is that the man was the love of the narrator’s life. Yet there is a sense that the person‘s passion was never fully or satisfactorily requited by the man. This is best seen in poems such as ‘Catching on ‘ where the man can wow old ladies but those close to him discover he’ll sting with bitter words and is only able to show his love when he  writes inscriptions in his books ‘love as ever’.  What develops is the portrait of an emotionally distant man who dictates his own terms in this relationship.  It is clear that whatever the nature of this affair, the man acted as mentor both in terms of her poetry but also broadening her cultural horizons. What is revealed is a relationship that becomes intensely cerebral, particularly in terms of their love for their craft. I got the sense that it was this aspect of the bond that the man valued most.

Of course, as with all love poems, we only get one version of the affair; but Topping skilfully shows the passion felt by the narrator for this man. Poems make much use of plural pronouns such as ‘us’ and ‘we’ skilfully showing the woman’s need to yoke the couple together.  At the same time, many poems are contradictory in terms of the relationship’s dynamics.  In the work ‘Last Swim’, the verse begins with the narrator confidently stating the rhythms of our swimming match perfectly; yet this is immediately contradicted by the line as usual I follow in your wake. What Topping does so skilfully here is not only to alert the reader to the true nature of the affair but also suggest that the person is deliberately double-thinking the bond and is content to delude herself that there is parity in the relationship.

Since the affair endures over many decades it does evolve.  The sense of sexual longing diminishes and is replaced by an intense friendship. It would appear that the man too becomes more able to return the narrator’s passion. This is best seen in the poem ‘Unlearning the route’. Here there is a reciprocal excitement at seeing each other evinced in the lines  all along the route I’d hold the thought of you matched then by a description of the man listening checking the window until at last I was there.

Ultimately this section deals with the tragedy not only of the man’s premature death but its effect on the woman.  Again Topping does well to underplay what is a catastrophic event in the character’s life. The line I can’t begin to know how to mourn him evokes the depth of her grief simply and effectively. These poems follow the pathology of bereavement extremely well. The poem ‘No Photograph’ introduces a level of dramatic irony for the reader as the writer avows she doesn’t possess – or indeed need – photos of the man because she is the bearer of your words and as such I will never let you leave me  since your voice still buzzes in my ears. The woman is of course failing to understand that, over time, such intimacy will fade and there may come a time when photos of the two of them are needed as an aide-memoire.

‘Severance’ is perhaps the bleakest poem in this group, dealing as it does with the nature of death. It begins with the bald statement I don’t understand what death is and then shows the sense of ‘severance ‘felt by the event. The extended metaphor of a piece of fruit being divided – split us apart like a knife parting the green flesh of a plum – powerfully evokes not just the emotional but also the physical pain of grief.  The second stanza with its proliferation of ‘I’ and ‘You’ reveals the utter loneliness of the woman left behind.  In the words I have to find a way back to you the tone is desperate and reveals no sense of acceptance: quite the contrary, in fact, since she still feels Matt’s presence that has passed through the skin of the night into my pores.

Besides these two sequences, Paper Patterns includes delightful poems dealing with nature and domestic activities such as sewing or jam-making. Here Topping creates still life with words.   In ‘Four ways to love Cauliflower’ the writer describes a cauliflower head as a miniature ivory city of secret passages.   Throughout the collection, Topping creates fine and extraordinary similes which are used sparingly so as to give more impact. I particularly liked the image of the woman in the title poem ’Paper Pattern’ sewing with a metal smile of pins.  In many such poems, the domestic descriptions broadens out into ruminations on eternal truths; thus ‘The Boiling of Jam’ turns into a reverie on the human desire to preserve life.  These poems are an effective counterbalance to the ‘Matt Simpson’ sequence, making this a collection with poems that provoke but can also charm the reader.