London Grip Poetry Review – Julia Duke

Poetry review – CONVERSATIONS: Mat Riches reviews Julia Duke’s poetic reflections on how we talk to one another

Julia Duke
Dempsey & Windle
ISBN: 978-1-913329-58-7
36pp    £8

Conversations is described by Duke’s own quite extensive foreword to the pamphlet as a “culmination of a life-time’s” digging into the whole issue of human ‘connectedness’ and intimacy, but in many ways these are poems more of quiet observation, staring as the book does with ‘Firstborn’

In your world the closest attention
is paid to the tiniest details; 
a small fleck of yellow sleep
brushed from your eye;
the finest of milk spots
brooded over anxiously:
at feeding time, around your lips,
a tiny tinge of blue.

There’s nothing to scare the poetry horses there. This is not high experimentation in form or metre, etc, despite Duke stating in her extensive ‘About the Author’ page at the end of the book that she “loves to experiment”; but it doesn’t have to do any of this.

It’s enough to collect these details and to weave in just a “tinge” of parental concern and worry, before building up to the poem’s sucker punch at the end. We’ve been reading this as a conversation with a new born, and it is; but the real conversation is happening between Duke and, I presume, her son and his child, his “January boy”. The last lines suggest there is a situation to be resolved, perhaps to be healed, by the arrival of the new child.

Food, warmth, the touch of a hand,
a sense of belonging,
the simple joy of being loved,
and human contact, eye to eye,
unashamed, unblinking.
Somewhere down the line
we strayed and lost our way.
How we never knew.

And a sense of these distances that occur recurs throughout the rest of the pages: there’s a “fleeting visit” in ‘Poignant Meeting’; there’s the the space between the protagonist and the homeless person in ‘Losing Your Balance’, as they sense their “world’s still self-distanced”. There is also the outright separation of the graveyard in ‘Morgan Jones Lies Here’ with its readings of gravestones by the sea – “Far below them, / the waves beat out the time”. I would, however, question the poetry of one of the later verses of this poem.

Grey Slate, 
purple heather,
bleached stone walls,
soft white lichens,
backdrop for a community’s 
proud history.

There’s one unstressed syllable out of six in lines 2 -4, and I can’t see what the line break of the penultimate line adds where there isn’t a clear metre elsewhere in the poem. But these are minor gripes in the grand scheme of things.

One noticeable element found throughout out the pamphlet – and one that plays into the titular conversations – is the range of After poems in the book. There are 6 of these poems (out of 20 in the book), all engaging in a kind of conversation with an artwork. These range from ‘Neighbourhood Gossip’ and its interpretation of Honoré Daumier’s painting of the same name to ‘Mind The Gap’ which is inspired by Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ from the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.

The former of these two poems offers us a further way to back up the claims of the blurb.

Here is guileless gossip
(we are eavesdropping on
intimate conversation)
that defines boundaries,
makes judgments,
heals wounds,
brings us together

And that bracketed line is echoed later in the book. In ‘Monday Morning Cafe’, where we see Duke observing and (for want of a better word) judging the person whom the blurb back of the book calls a “self-important trainee teacher’. This trainee feels harshly judged to me for having a “maniacal” laugh and words that “judder like a machine gun” while our protagonist is, one presumes, trying to enjoy a quiet cuppa. While our trainee doesn’t pause for breath, we are asked how they will “learn anything”.

This all feels pretty judgmental towards someone whose circumstances are entirely unknown and it strikes rather a sour note. When the shoe is on the other foot later in the collection, in ‘Sweet Conversation’, a group of friends gathers in cafe

piling sugar crystals 
on mugs of foaming coffee,
taking our turn, in deep debate,
drawing warmth, finding joy
from one another’s lives.
These days families live so far apart,
estranged, bereaved

I may be spending too long on this contrast, however. Julia Duke has crafted a pamphlet about human communication that will draw you in from the off, and may even prompt you to re-contact friends and family you’ve not spoken to in a while. And that has to be a good thing.