Jan 31 2023
Poetry review – TEN LINES: Rennie Halstead reviews a prize-winning collection of short poems by Sarah James
Ten Lines - or More Than Just Love Notes Sarah James The School of Arts, English and Drama Loughborough University ISBN 978-1-5272-9614-5 30 pp
Sarah James latest collection of poetry, Ten Lines or More Than Just Love Notes won the Overton Poetry Prize in 2020 and was published as a chapbook by Loughborough University in 2022. Within the ten line framework, James creates a wide variety of poems in different styles, from concrete poetry to a beguiling specular. She is at her best in her poems that focus on people, when the economy of style leaves the reader to fill in the gaps of the narrative.
In ‘Tim’s Mistletoe’ James creates a vivid opening image of Tim:
Running was never so hard as this walk. Tim wheezes as his breath catches; lungs gasp. Eyes glisten with the wind, and pain.
We are confronted with the reality of lung cancer through the extended simile of mistletoe:
… Cancer clings to his alveoli as balls of mistletoe do to leafless trees. White berries glint from the bare branches like fake pearls.
There is no room for sentimentality here, no pretence that there can be an escape from the consequences of the disease, only the certainty that the disease will get worse. The nearest we get to hope, is the wistful last line “Tim kisses his wife, and wishes”.
Similar insight into character comes in the vivid and affectionate ‘Nanny Prosser’.
When she was young, she jived with tiny moons in her hair and starlight in her eyes.
James remembers her twirling “with poppies in her arms / red petals swirling gently to her feet”. Other memories crowd in: “a soft-lit water silvered her gaze”. But Nanny ages, hair becoming “loose strands of grey”, and teaches her grandchildren to aim higher than the limited world of her own experience.
‘Before Winter Ends’ is another poem characterised by great affection. James is describing a winter visit to her Nan, though it isn’t clear if this portrait is also Nanny Prosser. It doesn’t matter, though this time Nan’s faculties appear to be fading.
Her forehead crinkles as she tries to press the creases from sagging memories. Eyes spark with brief inklings
Like everyone visiting elderly family members as their memory fades, there is that poignant sense of loss, of a loved relative slipping away from reality as “Her fingers /reach for mine, as if she might know me”.
‘Post-Dive’ is a love poem examining the breakdown of a relationship, through the metaphor of a dive and the subsequent return to the surface. The first stanza takes us into a new awareness:
…. I finally open my eyes and realise how much light floats below the broken surface.
suggesting the diver is about to confront a new reality through the physical act of diving, a breach with the past. The diver feels the water changing her, giving a new strength: “I glow like a strong filament /in a liquid lamp-bulb”. But on surfacing, the consequences of the new reality break in:
Anything could pass through me and sparkle, even the sharp shock of existing without him.
My favourite poem in this chapbook is ‘How to be a Chinese Lantern’. This plea for embracing the positive is wrapped in the metaphor of lighting Chinese lanterns. James makes a plea for people to be kind to one another, to look outward and be positive.
Don’t wait for strangers’ hands to strike a flame from flinted stone. Let your own warmth fill life’s frame of flimsy paper.
She urges us to “carry soreness with a light heart” and encourage others to light themselves with their inner warmth, and to spark others to do so in turn:
… until those around you rise too, lifted upwards, onwards - a lit flotilla floating stronger, higher, freer.
James subtitles her book “More Than Just Love Notes”. For me, her strongest poems are the love poems, in the broadest sense of the word and she creates a strong empathy in her readers without falling into sentimentality.