D A Prince finds the new Martha Kapos collection to be completely absorbing

???????????????????????????????The Likeness
Martha Kapos
ISBN 978-1-907587-39-9
56 pp.    £9.99


The Likeness is Martha Kapos’ third full collection from Enitharmon. All three carry the same reassuring stamp of recognition from the Poetry Book Society. With only one early pamphlet (1989) behind her, My Night in Cupid’s Palace (2003) was a PBS Special Recommendation and won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. Supreme Being (2008) was a PBS Recommendation, as is this volume. Yet Kapos remains a reticent and private poet, one who eschews fashionable fireworks in favour of examination and enlargement of her craft. If this sounds dull, it isn’t: she is exploring how her poems work as she writes them and in their positioning in this collection she is alert not just to thematic linking but to the echo of each word. David Constantine summed up her approach in this brief assessment, taken from the back cover of Supreme Being: ‘…Her poems seek revelation, they are the act of seeking it; they are, as Lowell said poems should be – the event, not the record of an event.’

I’m stepping back for a moment from The Likeness to look at a poem from Supreme Being as an introduction to how Kapos approaches her subjects. ‘Portrait from memory’ is short (three stanzas of five, six, five lines) about how the mind recalls, or tries to recall, the appearance of someone who has died. The first stanza puts this clearly –

You sit in what remains
of an eye, the joking gesture of a hand.
Your back has a straight long look
the elements attack and wear away
leaving a little less each year.

Kapos is balancing a visual record against what the mind can hold; it is this little less, this fading of memory, increasingly vague and different on each re-visit, that becomes the subject of the poem. The second stanza opens A little less still wears your face and the fading, the absence, the lack is what now preoccupies us. Six lines later A little less is further in the mind until the poem ends with The flesh of earth becomes the flesh of air./ Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise / a little less is saying. That phrase the flesh of air: it slips past, naturally, but in one line she has shown what happens to our memories of those we have loved. Supreme Being is a collection with loss at its heart.

The Likeness, too, is a collection about loss and how memories might be retrieved. The opening poem, ‘Homecoming – i.m. S.V.’, might be about someone diving into a pond and swimming, but the future loss is already suggested: you stepped out of your clothes (as though leaving this earthly life), Your face slid from our thoughts … and then into the water, which moves inevitably under its lid / still as a box … with this suggestion of a coffin. In ‘The magnetic field’, the following poem, a person (no name or relationship, no given gender) lies propped in a hospital bed, and then an extraordinary image is built up: the body as the source of a magnetic field.

and all the cardinal points of your body
laid out on this bed we didn’t make
became a silent spectacle

arranged on a bare mahogany table
at the back of a long hushed room at school
to teach us magnetism.

What is drawn in to this imagined patterned magnetic field are the small local sounds and activities – pigeons pecking, distant cutlery on plates, thin clouds, and then the surrounding streets (with their litter), the hillsides

all stood arranged in a series
of fine concentric circles to petal
and fan from your head and feet.

How do you describe absence? Where is its likeness? That is Kapos’ constant quest, the poems revolving around these questions, searching for an answer. In ‘Like nothing else’ – a characteristically nuanced title – she introduces an imagined return to an empty house remembered from childhood, where no room we ventured into was more/ than the shadow of a room and explains how, finally –

such an extreme account falls short
of the way his body persevered
in emptiness, as if the bundled outlines

of a sketch had been rubbed out
mark by mark until the page was blank.

This is picked up in the opening of the following poem, ‘As in a painting by Claude’, with the same examination of blurring – His body had that same/ unclear border with the air – and an exploration of how the remembered body might be seen in landscape, until we are returned to the world of art in the final couplet –

because he was somewhere else
in the gathering dusk of the picture.

Throughout this collection each poem leads into the next, as though the idea of absence is being rotated, viewed from as many angles as possible, to give back some explanation of how we can ‘see’ absence, the thing disappearing into … the quick / past tense of go. (‘Starting pistol’). What colours can we use for absence? This is from ‘The invention’ –

This colour will invent your last smile
swept up into a rattling heap
of leaves. This very brown

discovered by a random wind
is your exact presence …

Houses play their part, as vanishing points and also as remembered places; Kapos’ houses have to balance solidity with a near-transparent airiness …between lost and home (‘The doorway’). They can be bricks; they can be straw. Language is reaching for the intangible that only exists in memory, which in itself has no substance, in order to keep hold of a person, to keep him in view. The epigraph she has chosen to introduce the collection (‘Odd that a thing is most like itself when likened’ – Richard Wilbur) becomes her guide, and ours; by making comparisons, by using similes which create a vision of reality in the poet’s (and reader’s) imagination, Kapos is drawing on what poetry does best. When I read My Night in Cupid’s Palace I was struck by her frequent use of comparisons, her relish for ‘like’, and by her colours – predominantly green and yellow in that collection. In The Likeness the need for simile, the exact comparison, is part of the unifying action driving the poems.

The collection closes with a blending of lightness and seriousness that gives a new shape to the fragility we inhabit. ‘A true account of talking to the sun in Parkholme Road – after Frank O’Hara’ ends with a necessary ambivalence –

‘Be patient’
said the Sun, loud and clear
as it stepped in through the window.
‘You know what an act of faith it takes
to believe I’ll put in a reliable
appearance each morning?

Well –
I’ll not measure out any more distress
than you’ll need to write your poems.’

‘Can I be certain of that?’ I asked.
‘Not always,’ said the Sun.

This is a collection where all the poems engage with each other, and where subject and poetic craft are inseparable. I was absorbed in it and by it; for me, it’s a landmark.

D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her first full-length collection, Nearly the Happy Hour, was published by HappenStance Press in 2008, and a second collection Common Ground appeared in autumn 2014.