Poetry review – WAYS OF SPEECH: Carla Scarano D’Antonio reviews Ann Pilling’s new collection which deals authentically with both light and dark aspects of everyday life
This is the fifth collection by Ann Pilling, an award-winning poet with many publications. It explores relationships and meditates on ageing through the recall of memories and through links with nature in the Yorkshire landscape. The poems are skilfully crafted in precise language that shows Pilling’s considerable experience as a writer and as a poet. Her language is clear and her observations are honest, conveying inner emotions via freshness of imagery and lyrical language. Her meditations start from everyday life – a walk with her dog, birdwatching, experiences of the pandemic. Memories of childhood and of family and friends are described with great empathy. She captures life’s changes, offering them back to the reader like a gift of rich impressions expressing the joy of being alive.
A positive vison of life pervades this collection, even though death looms not only in poems about the current pandemic but also in Pilling’s handling of more normal times where funerals, illnesses and ageing are present alongside the lively aspects of life. Death is part of our existence but it does not efface life when it is lived in full, with a hopeful attitude. This idea is present, for example, in a poem about Murillo’s painting ‘A Peasant Boy Leaning on a Sill’, which is also on the front cover of the collection
His ‘Peasant Boy Leaning on a Sill’ brims with love. I had forgotten how small you were, you reach right up and cup my face in your hands. You kiss my mouth.
The emphasis here is on love and an openness to the future that will bring new experiences that will always be engaging and interesting. The poet, just as the boy in the painting does, ‘leans’ towards life and seems eager to be part of the life cycle; he observes from a distance and yet will soon be involved in the turmoil of existence and relationships.
The connection with nature is voiced in the poems via descriptions of birds and birdwatching, which demonstrate harmony and vitality: ‘A marvel too, to watch/how starlings scatter and mass, pluming/whole skies with smoke’. Pilling’s keen observations are conveyed in enthralling lines that rely on the combination of rhythm and sounds:
She circles graves and barks town dogs bark back, her magpie coat is brash against the tawny grass the duns of lichened slab and urn. (‘Spaniel’)
The sequence ‘In the Plague Times’ reveals once more an awareness of the constant presence of death in life. Now it looms more than ever before; it is around the house, in the objects that surround her, triggering existential questions:
In this plague times our thoughts narrow to dying. How will it end? How will any of us end? (‘Old Friends’)
Nevertheless, Pilling finds her sense of reality in the ordinariness that seems to resolve all the sadness of the lockdown and the devastation of the pandemic. She displays a humorous attitude asking will ‘heaven be the place/where all my missing mugs of tea are?’ She remarks that she needs places that ‘go in our minds’, places she identifies with the Yorkshire Dales, which she calls ‘the country of my heart’. She feels renewed in this landscape by the ‘big silence’ that is like a ‘sweet note of music’.
Memories of her childhood are a source of joy and pain at the same time. She recalls her father helping her learn how to ride a bike with ‘His hands, big as cabbage leaves’ that feel reassuring and caring. She recalls the experience of a breech delivery, which was painful but also ‘exquisite’. The most touching memories are about her mother’s mental health condition that ended with a lobotomy and an attempted suicide. The repetitions in the poem ‘When’ emphasise in a pressing rhythm the tough situation Pilling had to face when she was very young, but also convey her mother’s sufferings and the effects on family life:
When she walked down the street with no clothes on When they opened her skull When our David came home When he smelt the gas poker. When no-one could wake her.
Nevertheless, memories are sweet and dear to the poet; they are ‘clustered like bees’ and the different characters and people are like ‘pilgrims’ who pass by and linger for a while and are always surprised by new experiences and emotions that concern what existed before and what is left.
Meditations on ageing and the joy of life that carries on despite the fact that the body changes are developed in inspiring lines:
I don’t want to grow fat, I did that in childhood. If people look at me I’d like them to see something time has improved, something good, a sapling grown to a dignified tree. And I don’t want to hoard things, leave clutter behind, what I care about now is the life of the mind. (‘Correction’)
It is the joyful, positive side of life which comes to the foreground. Pilling celebrates ‘the life of the mind’ which renews her perspectives in a vision full of light and hope. She speaks of ‘the light that I too am becoming/as we all join,/the light and the sea and the blackbird singing.’ This is an important collection that speaks convincingly about the positive experience of living despite the challenging times and the inevitable eventual arrival of death.