Jan 24 2023
Poetry review – WHEN THE WORLD WAS LEFT IN PIECES: Kate Noakes admires Jennifer Copley’s compact but telling portrayal of war’s consequences
My first reading of this pamphlet left me wanting to know which war(s) we are being taken to – it feels like Eastern Europe, it might be Ukraine, it might be an imagined war closer to home since Rupert books appear in one poem. And then I realised the point: it doesn’t matter. There’s a certain and depressing universality of war that Copley explores in these well-crafted poems dealing both with the civilian experience of conflict and its aftermath, and also with refugees in London.
In its first part, Copley gives us a number of striking poems packed with uncompromising images for her language of war. Here are women covered in mud who lie down in fields where tanks roll over them, and dead dolls (‘When we lay in the fields’); here are requests for hair and gold teeth in an echo of the Holocaust (‘Teeth and hair’); here is a family burning its chest of drawers and then the clothes to stay warm, where ‘The flames smelled of hair spray and deodorant’ (‘Burning our clothes’); and beyond these there is more cold, hunger and fear for the fate of women.
My favourite poem, if that is not too foolish a thought in this context, is ‘Old woman after the war.’ Perhaps it was prompted by a news report I recall seeing early in the Ukraine war, but nonetheless it is a poem of great pathos rendered with simple clarity. An elderly lady has buried her son
by her cottage wall, she couldn’t carry him any further. There was no coffin. She dug the hole herself, covered his body With broken crockery to deter scavengers.
Even though she cannot grow anything much in her garden and is reminded of her parents chewing shoe leather in an earlier war, she is afforded some hope of life and a happy memory of her son at the poem’s end:
At least she still has the hens. She hid them in the dresser when the soldiers came. Andriy used to collect the eggs, carry them back to her, warm, splattered with shit.
The second part of the pamphlet is a series of poems telling the story of one family transplanted to London and which loses both daughters to illness and suicide. The refugee experience is well described in its bad housing, impossible bureaucracy, and lack of food. The details Copley includes are pointed, as in this from their journey:
Our mother sold her butterfly brooch for medicine which didn’t work. [‘Dorina’],
or this memory from the daughter at her sister’s funeral:
I used to love being squashed up against the smell of my mother’s best coat. [‘Funeral’],
or this scene of the mourning parents:
They are still laying a place at table for us both – the acorn spoon for Lana, the feather spoon for me. [‘Afterwards’].
As well as her clear observation, Copley has a good line in similes, which she uses sparingly. I was struck by ‘The city growls around us like a bear’ (‘Vira’), which is a perfect description of London.
This is a pamphlet of short-ish poems that punch emotionally well above their size and is deserving of six of your British pounds to read work that will stay with you for some while. A Chagall-like image of the dead sister appearing is one such impressive stanza:
I could see right through her body past her spine to the scars on her lungs. She was wearing my coral necklace. It lay awkwardly on the bones of her throat.