D A Prince’s new collection exemplifies the virtues of understatement in poetry c_ground_smallCommon Ground D A Prince Happenstance Press ISBN 978-1-910131-03-9 80 pp   £12 (hardback)

D A Prince is, among many other things, an astute and knowledgeable poetry reviewer for London Grip. She begins her own latest collection Common Ground with two potentially revealing pieces. She seems almost to be stating her own critical manifesto in ‘The good poems’, about which she declares

You can’t tell where they start. That first line with its sense of direction is just to fool you.   It all began long before this and ends long after the book is closed

This sounds pleasingly authoritative. However, in the preceding poem she has admitted that – like many of us – she has gathered much of her practical knowledge in unlikely places (Everything I know about / hanging wall paper came from a West End play/ … / laying bricks, from a novel by Solzhenitsyn). So perhaps we should not jump to conclusions about any principles behind her poetry but simply go on with the rest of the book …

… where what greets us first are several poems of reminiscence. Prince recollects – perhaps in tranquillity but certainly perceptively – feelings associated with school dance classes, encounters with children’s classic literature and Sunday evening black-and-white TV and struggles with A-level studies of Shakespeare and Keats. ‘Memo to Self’ seems to hark back to a childhood speech impediment and the way certain sounds stick like wallpaper to your teeth. Among such personal poems she slips in a delightful sonnet in the voice of Horatio consoling himself for his relatively minor role in Hamlet

Besides, the sidelines are a safer bet so I survive – at least upon the page, though never in imagination. The curtain falls: I vanish with the stage.

The poems move from accounts of remembered events to small elegant meditations on the stuff of everyday life. Prince’s subjects are rather diverse: food, weather, family celebrations; and she even risks the potential clichés of a cat poem. She then allows herself a surprising leap into fantasy by imagining Cinderella’s coach arriving at her own front door (shrinking Ted’s van and Gupta’s 4 x 4) before returning the mundane world of supermarket checkout, bus queue and the invaluable hardware shop whose busy till nestles in paper bags and … things you can’t put words to.

Among such homely poems Prince drops in more enigmatic and unsettling ones. ‘This Morning’ begins in a tense atmosphere over breakfast (after a quarrel the night before?): What do you say over toughened toast / and coffee flaked with the milk’s sour rim? It is in this poem that clocks make the first of their quite frequent appearances in this collection. Evidently Prince finds time and time-keeping to be a fruitful source of inspiration. The results are sometimes light-hearted – as in a partly-found poem involving a poorly translated user-guide which promises that a clock will continuously alarm me – but usually they are more uncomfortable. In a temporarily unoccupied house there are

.                                   clocks ticking to an audience of empty rooms. No one hears the gruff cough when the hour’s almost due … The hours are measuring themselves

Other poems offer an alternative to temporal disorientation and successfully create a spatial ambiguity, by being set in locations where nothing can be entirely depended on – for instance, in a town where

Cold mornings taste of bells. The local saints won’t bless you, struggling with the words for please or help me. or elsewhere in temporay lodgings in sleepless hotel rooms, deodorised to mask the lists of other bodies, where the small mirror shrinks you.

‘Souvenirs’ cleverly conjures up the tangle of both time and space in an elderly woman’s memory as ornaments on shelves and mantelpiece line up an impossible map –/ Blackpool next to Minehead, Llandudno /alongside Brighton and also serve as a rather vague biographical timeline: Skegness is a spill-jar, before / they put in central heating, made her / get rid of the grate.

In the group of poems following ‘Souvenir’, Prince explores particularly well a number of situations in which memory, although sketchy, still seems more vivid and important than the present. Then a little further on we find her dealing not just with memory but with the past itself which she likens to a parcel bulging in brown paper / …/ packed with our own bread and language. How can one cope with such a package? Look at the string – knots we’ve lost the words for…. Must I sign here? These lines are very characteristic of the way that Prince’s close examination of ordinary objects like wrapping and string yields clues about human fears and emotions.   The plainness of that last sentence is misleading: its meaning shifts subtly depending on which word is made to bear the stress.

‘Understated’ is a word that has been used to describe Prince’s poetic style. The term is appropriate – but it should not be thought that it implies the poems are in some way under-written. On the contrary, these are thoughtful poems and they are certainly well-crafted (Prince, when she chooses, is quite capable of handling verse-forms like the villanelle or sestina). The collection as a whole is carefully constructed and it is interesting to observe the extent to which successive poems are linked. In some cases the last word of one is the title of the next; but usually the connection is more subtle – a phrase or image inherited in slightly altered form by each poem from its predecessor.

If I have any reservations about this well-made book, I would say that a a few more departures from control and understatement might have been welcome. A poem towards the end of the collection which did stand out for me is ‘Shibboleth’. It is in no way an excitable or outspoken piece; and yet with its stanzas of three short lines it seems to present a rather more fragmented argument than the denser, measured ones that the reader has grown accustomed to. There is also an unusual anxiety in its tone as it speaks about some undefined surface flaw or crack:

Do we have to look at it? It looks the same doesn’t it? Doesn’t it look the same? I would have liked just a little more of this sort of edginess. .                                                                                                       Michael Bartholomew-Biggs