Emma Lee responds to the sensitivity and compassion in a new collection by Sue Rose

cost of keys
The Cost of Keys
Sue Rose
Cinnamon Press http://www.cinnamonpress.com
ISBN 9781909077430
70 pp   £8.99


Sue Rose has found her form in the shape of the sonnet and brings a sharp eye to her subjects, e.g. “Gynaecologist” ends When I withdraw from the muscular trumpet / my hand fits like a mute, I leave an empty bell. Not all the poems are sonnets and those that are do not rigidly follow the form. Deft use of para- and part-rhymes and variations in rhyme prevent the poems from feeling too similar to one another. But each sonnet follows the need for a volta.

In “Ellis Island” the poet follows a woman’s tale of a grandmother turned away and so separated from her family but the poet recognises the woman’s accent and looks to her own roots:

And I think I’m in the life I live because a great-grandfather
ended his voyage with the dirty arm of the Thames, not the America
he’d paid passage for, disembarking, confused, ready
for anything, the buildings dark, the language angular and cold.

It’s not strictly a sonnet, but feels like one. The chill of thwarted expectation and disappointment is both physical and emotional. These immigrants don’t travel with hope but with resignation looking to eke out a home in a dark, dirty cold place. Sue Rose often uses physical landscape to describe an emotional state. In “Morning”:

Later, she sits on the bench
not drinking a cup
of iced coffee, not thinking
about the summer rain
shredding the petals
of his wreath last night,
not looking at the sand that hums
like the air around a pylon.
The morning is all church bells,
kelp-dying, the brewing rumble
of a plane. She gazes past
skitterings and furrowings,
driftwood and debris, blind
to the sea’s siphoning
as the tide gathers.

It’s very evocative of bereavement, the blindness to life carrying on as normal for some. The Cost of Keys ends with “Heart Archives”, a sequence inspired by ‘Les Archives du Coeur’ by Christian Boltanski, an installation that archives recordings of human heartbeats. After viewing ‘The Heart Room’, visitors can record their own heartbeats along with a personal message which will be archived. In a listening room, visitors can search for specific recordings via a database. “G25042013” is one of these sonnets.

Scratched into song by stylus
or burnt to life, ghosts warble
our back stories, smug immortals,
always on call. Declaiming in corners,
they brighten the dark, stars raining
dead light, while our own departed wave
from the edges of our lives, crying ‘here’
to the roll call of memory and event.

But there are other phantoms, seen
and heard by no-one, companions
of our barren age. They walk beside us,
relentless as the breaths they never drew –
the son dreamed, named, never conceived,
the craved daughter with all her continuing line.

Like the others in the sequence, “G25042013,” is very evocative, yet lacks context. Readers know nothing of the heartbeat or personal message that inspired the poem. It’s a polished, well-executed ekphrastic poem but I’d have liked to have known a bit more about why the poet chose to respond in this way.

The Cost of Keys carries a theme of responsibility to the past, to the sensitivities of others, epitomised by compassionate, imaginative poems which show awareness of a poet’s responsibility to a reader. These poems aren’t just polished exercises but have something to communicate.


Emma Lee’s publications include Mimicking a Snowdrop and Yellow Torchlight and the Blues. Ghosts in the Desert is forthcoming from Indigo Dreams Press. She blogs at http://emmalee1/wordpress.com