Sep 3 2022
Poetry review – DOG DAYS: D A Prince explores a multi-layered collection by Julie Lumsden
The title might suggest the hot, indolent, sultry days of high summer but these poems are the very opposite. They are sharp, observant, wry and witty. Their lightness plays with different voices and human weaknesses, seen from the perspective of age —an age, with all its accumulated experience, that has all its faculties intact and which can see very clearly.
For many years we’ve been practising old age. A preoccupation with coats and the suitability of carrier bags. I seem to have lost the knack of inhabiting that small space between the future and the past. (‘The Forever House’)
Lumsden can move from life’s minutiae to the larger question, time, so lightly that we almost miss that deliberate ambivalence in ‘practising’. Is old age a profession, the business/practice that requires rigorous training? Or is it something we rehearse for, building up skills in the hope of getting better at it? In Lumsden’s hands it could be both; she is both aware of her own physical age, plus its attendant problems, and simultaneously observing it as a condition.
In ‘The Cheap Hotel’ she moves from an anecdote to addressing her own Body — ‘…Body and I/ are old friends, cheerfully/ accommodating/ each other’s complaints.’ There’s acceptance not only of reality ‘through this final fiasco’ and ‘the interest of consultants’ but of what a lifetime’s familiarity with one’s own body means: ‘I love you/ you ramshackle slut, my one/ and only.’
She is equally objective in her view of marriage and its emotional scale —
You and I talk the sun down. It is enough this. Fifty years under five roofs, we are home to ourselves. Sometimes we hate each other for less than a minute. (‘Nine Lives’)
She makes her line breaks work hard and in her poems every word pulls its weight, a craft learned from the stage. In ‘Territorial haunting’, the line breaks catch the pattern of a domestic disagreement—
The living room door suddenly closing, firmly, purposefully with real intention and we’d been arguing of course and stopped.
— before it ends with ‘unexplained laughter.’ The scene is visual and aural, with no wasted words. In ‘Cafe Talk’ a snapshot of meeting and conversation about poetry gives her the chance to sum up her approach — ‘as few words as possible,/ particular, precise, neat/ on a wide white page.’ I would add ‘pithy’ to her list of adjectives.
When this is integrated with a deep knowledge of theatre it opens up another level of connections — with drama, with the creation of alternative voices, with the whole working life of acting and production, with the interplay between reality and invention. I can’t say that it ‘underpins’ the collection because the theatrical element is too subtle for that and there are other themes that emerge. But drama weaves through the poems, sometimes dominant and sometimes in the wings. Lumsden, the biographical note tells us, studied at Manchester School of Theatre, and that shapes her perception plus her economy with language.
Samual Becket makes several appearances, from the philosophical heights in ‘Godot’ —‘A play about nothing/ and everything’—to the happy satisfaction of ‘Equal Billing’ —
In a recent production of Krapps Last Tape – my name is placed prominently in the programme – Derek Jacobi’s cardigan was knitted by me.
Actors, and the language of their small vanities, appear in various ways: the two-hander of married life, the problem of another actor with the same name, or the distorting effect of old age —
At this remove, she’s uncertain whether she played Ophelia at the National or in her head. […] At dusk, on the patio, barefoot in a floating nightdress she gestures in the spot of her security light. (‘Covert Crescent’)
A sequence of six poems with the overall title ‘Real Drama’ serves as a reminder that action isn’t only onstage. Each poem is a monologue from a single character in the story, each one giving details that slowly accumulate to draw knowledge from the reader. From ‘The Best Friend’ we learn her name: Ruth; from ‘The Witness’ that she did something violent —
Face down on the pavement, blood mixing with the flagon of beer he’d been carrying — a slow foam frothing like wash day. Someone shouted Look what you’ve done Ruth.
Such a domestic image, ‘wash day’; so ordinary. ‘The Hangman’ gives the final piece —
I hanged them both. The one before Mrs Ellis, I hanged her also.
The banality of the death sentence appears not through Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain, but the previous hanging—
No one wept or chanted through the night for Mrs Christofi, or broke through a police cordon to bang on the great wooden double doors, begging her to pray with them.
Hers was ‘not what you might call// an interesting passion.’ Lumsden lets the hangman speak in flat tones, as one who looks back at his work with no emotional involvement. For an actor, voice is part of the character and Lumsden can create through voice and register, and through a monologue’s small, defining details.
‘Death of a Dramatist’ brings many of her ideas together in the form of a monologue from a writer arguing with the sensationalised demands of a director. I first read this poem in Millstone Grit, an anthology from the alumni of Sheffield Hallam’s MA Creative students. Here, among poems that extend ideas about the overlap of theatre and real life, it is the cornerstone of the collection. The opening is reminiscent of ‘life’ versus ‘soap’ —
Mike says all you’ve got is a boring couple, old people at that, talking, nothing happening, you need forty five story events. Forty five?
Mike, the director, wants attention-grabbing story lines, and not what the writer offers; he cannot see drama in ‘… a married couple/ lying in bed talking’ but pulls the action, wanting children to take over—
get her round with the son, they break in, smash the place up, steal money, beat up the old couple and then … the Dad
In contrast to this rapid high-volume list of events the quiet ending of the poem — the outline of the play we never see — shows Lumsden’s care for reality, for creating theatre out of the everyday —
I just want the parents to lie there, wondering what went wrong with their lives. I want to listen to what they have to say while they watch the dawn slowly reach them, filling the room with light. The lighting would be superb Mike.
I wonder if ‘Death’ in the title indicates the ending of a career in drama writing, an inevitable end when fashion, particularly on television, is for the louder, violent plots that appeal to the majority of viewers.
Where does the title, Dog Days, come from? It’s slipped in obliquely in the last lines of the opening poem (‘Sermon’) — ‘Grow out of detail. Find serenity – / lazy dog enjoying the end of the world.’ — and is the title of the final poem. Here, however, it’s centred around dogwood (the shrub), verbal playing that pulls another undercurrent in the collection — the natural world, both plant and animal, and their connectedness within ‘God’s leafy choreography’. Lumsden has brought sermon, prayer, and God into the working arguments of many poems; they are there, woven in with theatre in its many forms, as part of the pattern of a fully-lived life.
Dogwood and I are happy now nothing in our midsummer garden wants to be more or less, neither trying hard nor giving up.
It’s a good ending to this collection, which bows out in the final line with the quotation ‘All flesh is grass.’ In its wit, range and observation this is a collection for all seasons.