Wendy French finds that Ruth Valentine’s chapbook fully meets the challenge of responding to the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
A Grenfell Alphabet A lament by Ruth Valentine ISBN: 978-1-78808-782-7 Copies available through the Grenfell Alphabet FB page
https://www.facebook.com/A-Grenfell-Alphabet-167564637148776/ A £5 pamphlet sold in aid of Grenfell Tower Fund
at the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation https://thekandcfounation.com
One could be forgiven for picking up this pamphlet and expecting some well-meaning but sentimental poems about the dreadful disaster. Such a recent tragedy, with the burning and aftermath, is very fresh in our minds. But there is not a hint of sentimentality in any of the words and so the opposite emotion is experienced. The series of poems is built around the alphabet as the title suggests and each poem varies in length between six and eleven lines which demonstrate Valentine’s skill in not wasting words but covering essential details for the long poem to work.
There are two poems to a page so the words/lines are not cramped together and give the reader time to reflect on the stanza being read. Each stanza has a title based on a floor e.g. the first stanza is named Floor 1 and the first line leads us straight into the burning mass:
In the burning high-rise hive there are alphabets, Arabic Tamil Ge’ez, there are apricots…
So we are reminded straightaway of the diversity of people living in this high-rise block and therefore of all the rich cultures and languages that would have been mingling with one another in everyday living.
Floor 2 Think instead about birthday cards, a shelf with a whole year of good wishes
and the last two lines of this stanza:
books printed in faraway alphabets, Hindi Cyrillic Chinese, yes lots of books.
From Floor 3 with the “cuckoo-clock” to Floor 4 with the “dishes washed and drying” we are reminded about the ordinariness of lives but how each life is precious and how we never know when our final moment will come.
Valentine uses the phrase “don’t think of that” in several of the stanzas and it cleverly drew me in to dwell for longer on the image that it lays weight to:
…and gifts still wrapped from the shop, due to be given tomorrow perhaps, so the heart lifts, the thought of pleasure soon to be felt and understood don’t think of that… Floor 7
A picture that I couldn’t shake from my mind was from Floor 5:
There are eggs in rack in the fridge that would have been breakfast tomorrow…
The image of the rack reminded me of the torture rack and that is what it must have been like to have been in a burning tower, bodies boiling in the heat.
The 24 floors/stanzas contain all aspect of different lives, tastes, occupations, fears, worries, photographs, emails and cards, communication, mattresses on floors, loves forbidden and otherwise. Valentine cleverly evokes the diverse society with the pictures and belongings that she writes about.
Floor 13: …………… At least there’s music, maracas, mandolins, Mozart, melodies heard in the street, meandering in the head in the insomniac hours, ska, heavy metal, rai, ragas, Ethio-jazz, don’t fall asleep. Floor 15: What’s the melting point for opal before it flows out of its setting and becomes an ocean…
There are so many clever details that add to the structure and meaning behind this pamphlet. The reader will be left with the feeling of inadequacy in the face of the question, ‘What can I do to help?’ One answer which goes some way to preventing a feeling of total inadequacy is to buy this pamphlet and contribute to the Grenfell Tower fund. Copies can be obtained through the Grenfell Alphabet Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/A-Grenfell-Alphabet-167564637148776/
This is such a well written response and demonstrates that poetry can make things happen if it makes us think and then act to support a cause.
Floor 24: X the unknown number of victims. Y the question nobody wants to answer. Z for the zero which is Grenfell Tower.
Wendy French is the author of Thinks Itself A Hawk (Hippocrates press 2016) and is joint editor with Michael Hulse and Donald Singer of The Hippocrates Book of the Heart (due from Hippocrates press September 2017)