Poetry review – ALICE AND THE NORTH : Maggie Butt finds vibrant honesty in Anne Caldwell’s prose-poem sequence
This superb collection of prose-poems seems almost designed to demonstrate the versatility, strength and power of the form. Here is a poet absolutely at one with her form, confidently adapting it to her needs and subtly moulding what she wants to say to the shape of the poem.
The delicious premise of this sequence is that it is a ‘love-song to the north’ (of England) in which a new fictional Alice grows up journeying through post-industrial landscapes, flaming moorland and the ever-present weather. ‘Alice’s north is all pound-shops and chip-barms… fragile uplands and flooding and heather… a rare slipper orchid.’ Anne give Alice the rich cadences of the north’s everyday speech, idiom and dialect, ‘Her wildness of language is gritstone and millstone.’ She revels in the place-names and characters of the north, ‘Aunt Bertha is a walnut, dressed in jet and lace.’
The poems are rich with all the senses, both close-up ‘Alice has a den in the bottom of the wardrobe which smells of plimsolls,’ and wide-angle ‘Alice sketches the scent of heather burning, the echo of clogs, coal and the black-faced ewes snaking through the gaps in Hadrian’s wall.’
These poems are rich with imagery, ‘since her father’s death her family house is eiderdowned with grief,’ ‘rookeries chattering and their offspring plump with love,’ ‘peppermint tea, pale as longing,’ ‘clapperboard villages clung to the coast like whelks,’ ‘birch trees shimmering like unspoken words,’ ‘ an arpeggio of windblown nests and broken eggs,’ ‘prejudice cockroaching across the floors,’ ‘wind solid as stone walls.’
Alice herself shape-shifts, briefly becomes a puma ‘padding up Corporation Street, her pelt gleaming, soaked by days of rain’ and the landscape itself, ‘a giantess, lying across Yorkshire, her legs bent in sleep.’ But she often lives alone, ‘Her rooms are best at holding old maps, fishbones, dead conversations, sheep skulls and the soft padding of stray cats.’ She experiences love, and loses love, ‘Now he’s gone. Alice is all mud and shingle. She’s Bridlington in winter.’
There is deep humanity, moving observation and a wicked sense of humour in these poems. They encompass life and death, ‘Alice can sense them all, pulling away from the shadows of their loved ones… The dead are walking backwards, skirting through the woods towards the Calder river.’ This sequence moves effortlessly from the interior of the psyche to the exterior of the countryside, ‘the idea of a room becomes a moor; intimacy is as wide as a meadow.’
In these locked-down days Anne Caldwell has whirled me away on a guided tour of the north, allowing me to take my time and see with new eyes, revealing it as a wonderland indeed. This collection has also led me to think how honest – how northern – the prose poem is, eschewing the knowingness of fancy line breaks, rhythm and rhyme to reveal the rugged poetry of its own self, its vibrant word choices, shimmering imagery and the movement which reveals meaning within its own unpretentious frame.