Poetry review – Whatever it is that chimes: D A Prince considers a New & Selected by Nadine Brummer which gives a fascinating perspective on the development of her writing
Whatever it is that chimes: New and Selected Poems Nadine Brummer Shoestring Press, 2020. ISBN 978-1-912524-57-0 156 pp. £15
Shoestring Press published Nadine Brummer’s first collection, Halfway to Madrid, in 2002 and it was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Three further titles have followed, all from Shoestring. Now this substantial volume draws generously from all of these and ends with thirty-one new poems, grouped under the title Whatever it is that chimes. As with any well-judged Selected, it’s fascinating to see early ideas expand and develop at the time as deeper, more personal, concerns emerge.
I heard Nadine Brummer read from Halfway to Madrid at Leicester Poetry Society in 2004 but I had forgotten, until I checked back, that I had written the review for the Society’s newsletter. What strikes me now is how that response to her poems hasn’t changed; re-reading this selection from her first collection I’d picked out the same poems and jotted the same thoughts. Her poems stand up well to the test of time with the selection here appearing as a foundation for her whole body of work: outward-looking, engaged with detail, questioning and, above all, able to consider larger existential questions in an accessible and challenging way. It’s impossible to read her work quickly; these questions slow the reader, making us consider our personal responses. In ‘At the Lucien Freud exhibition’ a description of naked flesh depicted on canvas, and the nerve it takes to look closely, moves beyond the bodies into their context —
You sense the cracks of old enamel bowls and chipped chrome taps behind a drape. In front a red-brown rug bristles. These genteel props touch my eyes. Below each covering a frame, upholding surfaces of this and that, lies coiled, and I am forced to look again at how I live. This cold October day I’m in a crowd well heeled and buttoned up engrossed with such carnality I fear our coats might flake and tear and eyes, preoccupied with doubt, find bodies we’d not bargained for.
The stanza break between looking at the picture and the deceptively simple ‘at how I live.’ marks the shift from painting to inner self, but it’s a self that’s surrounded by a crowd of gallery goers. Brummer is good at using the line break in this poem to subvert expectation; it’s a technique that will surface throughout the collection, along with her questioning of ‘how I live.’
In her Leicester reading Brummer called her poems ‘acts of retrieval’. ‘The Kaleidoscope’ begins in personal anecdote (the poet saving pocket money for fourteen weeks to buy the kaleidoscope, only to let it slip and shatter) and her mother’s reaction, laughing but also weeping. It ends, as does ‘At the Lucien Freud exhibition’, in existential examination of memory and its shaping role —
Or I see us weeping for each other. Could that be true? I need it to be so, to have her a brilliant dot and me a prism where nothing is broken beyond repair, and there are only patterns I must look into.
The magical coloured patterns inside the kaleidoscope merge with the patterns life takes. Brummer has an eye for patterns, whether in art or in nature; In ‘The hill’ she writes a description of a hill, the one seen from her window for over seventeen years, in changing weather, with changing vegetation, under cloud-shifts. It’s a landscape poem, or appears to be, until the end where she realises the best view has been from indoors, ‘…from window panes/ squared like a grid to draw by.’ The final four lines lift the poem into the metaphysical —
I’ve seen the authority of fog wiping out castle, trees, grass, everything and then the hill comes through again like the idea of help.
It’s an ending full of the simple comfort of a familiar and much-loved view, with underneath an echo of Psalm 121 ‘ I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.’ Only a faint echo here but one of the developments through this Selected Poems is the increasing number of poems with religion in them. These emerge slowly until they become part of the foreground in the final section (Whatever it is that Chimes: New poems). In ‘Doorpost’ she clarifies her position — ‘Like survivors/ of tradition I’m a secular Jew’ — but the poem itself reveals how tradition (here, the mezuzah affixed to the front doors of Jewish homes) is ingrained in her, along with a spiritual need —
I’m parched, thirsting for something I can’t get hold of which fingertips pressed to my lips would then kiss if I knew the right name.
There are more family-related poems in this final section, too, as though memories become clearer with age. We are not given the name of the ‘generous aunt’ who by mistake gave her a book of bible tales containing both the Old and New Testaments; reading this, fascinated by full-page illustrations of the life of Jesus, was an even more furtive pastime than reading the ‘sex-book’. Typically, Brummer questions both her memory and the subject
How had I learned to dread Jesus? No-one I remember had said I must run past Brideoak Street’s convent as if someone was out to get me. To this day I brood on Jesus— who on earth did he think he was?
I like that ‘on earth’, the colloquialism used to great effect. It’s both light and resonant. All through her poems Brummer uses questions, both to herself and to the wider space occupied by readers. She questions the world at every level. ‘Windfalls’, a poem not just about apples but about friends and death, opens ‘How do you measure the size/ of a sound that exceeds/ its noise?’ In ‘All my life’, a poem in response to Mark Doty’s ‘At the Boatyard’, Brummer opens by considering the colour green and then lets the poem expand, looking at ecstasy, how the mind perceives, and asks
Or do epiphanies happen when the eye enters, at times, a different pupillage, as if mind set free from body almost closes the gap between seer and seen?
We, as readers, travel with her, considering the questions. In this case she sent me checking bookshelves to find Doty’s poem, to share her starting point; as I said, this collection demands (and deserves) time, not just for reading the poems themselves but for searching out the writers and artists who have inspired the poems. This poem ends with what could be a summing up of all Brummer’s work — ‘how all my life I’ve been/ on my way to a celebration.’
I’ve barely touched on her poems about artworks or about travel — she’s good at evoking the sunlit Mediterranean countries — but both are inseparable from her life, as are people and poetry. This collection has poems for a wide range of poets, for friends. At the same time, throughout this collection, she celebrates the natural world in poems of intense observation. I’ve picked ‘Foxgloves’ for personal reasons; there’s a generous self-seeded thicket of them immediately outside my window. I can look from page to flowers to confirm the precision of Brunner’s description —
whose top buds, knuckle-pale, stay clenched while underneath, pendulous and pocked inside, these hollow things unfold an ambiguous beauty.
There’s an economy in ‘knuckle-pale’ and a link, too, with the image of hands that follows; as a child Brummer fitted their caps over her fingers. She looks closely, knowing what she writes about, including the bees whose movements echo the child’s. She writes simultaneously about the present (the flower before her) and her past. This is her strength, the way she has always given everything she writes about a setting and context. Brummer reminds me what the best poets do: explore the world, enhance it with language that breaks down insularity, affirm our common life and share their experience. Reading her in lockdown I am grateful for her wide vision and the way she takes me out into a rich and vivid world. This volume really is a celebration.