Aug 15 2023
Poetry review – GRACE NOTES: Nancy Charley‘s new collection is wide-ranging and sometimes surprising but is built round a strong central theme
Pay attention to the small print might be an instruction to accompany Nancy Charley’s new collection Grace Notes. Many of the poems are influenced or interspersed by other people’s words and the opinions, preconceptions and prejudices that they embody. And as in poetry so also in life. We ourselves are inevitably shaped by the received wisdom that surrounds us; and this is not necessarily a bad thing or something that occurs without our cooperation. The outcomes however are not always the ones intended.
In the opening section “Sunblest White” the motivating words are from popular Christian hymns and the sequence seems to capture the experience of a young person both wanting to and trying to follow and live up to the standards implied by the songs. A half-understood glimpse of holiness
sets her apart from Sunblest White, Shipphams Paste, Angel Delight, stops her stealing sweet money, turns the tantrummer into pliant daughter. [“When I survey the wondrous cross”]
There are some well-chosen words here – and not just the evocative grocery names. The unfamiliar coinage ‘tantrummer’ and the slightly old-fashioned ‘pliant’ catch the attention very effectively. In ‘”Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee” the epigraph is the couplet ‘Take my intellect and use / Every power as though shalt choose’ and the poem confronts the tension between what what’s labelled ‘spiritual’ and what is judged to be ‘practical’. The poem begins
It's tempting to believe her parents’ arthritis and multiple sclerosis will be healed if they give their lives to Jesus.
But it ends
She studies and struggles with thoughts of medical school, to better meet her parents; needs, and the world’s.
Charley isn’t using this sequence to make fun of the child’s naïve or fluctuating faith; instead I think she is highlighting the pitfalls and shortfalls that can accompany the communication of faith in too simplistic terms. Two other sequences later in the book also incorporate religious material and suggest that Charley is still interested in exploring the complexities around the intersection of faith and experience.
The section “Lament” contains poems about the betrayed (military veterans left isolated to deal with PTSD), the neglected (refugees) and the misguided. The last group are compassionately listed under the epigraph of the Bible verse ‘Where there is no vision the people perish …’ Among those who seem to be perishing for lack of guidance are ‘the worker who can’t think beyond procedure’ and ‘ the zero-houred, the poor Ofsted teacher’. We are invited to
Despair for the injected, refugee-rejected, the communion of suits, the one-time-use disposable, the neutered unions
these numerous sorrows being memorably wrapped up in imaginative wordplay and assonance.
The book’s title section “Grace notes” uses the words of family mealtime graces rather in the way that the opening poems used hymns. But here the prayers appear as small insertions as shown in the example below which is quoted in full
Dear Lord Engrossed with food-fadding bless these sinners weighted with desk jobs, TVs, tablets burdened with two-for-one with worth-it treats, breakfast snatching, as we eat our sugar-boosting, boozy lunches, dinners one-metre-pizzas, eat-all-we-can
In this case it is fairly easy to see how this poem could (should?) be read: going across and down the page in a natural way causes the two sets of words to make coherent sense. In the other poems in this section however I am less sure of how the two component texts ought to be spoken in order to make the sense the author intended.
It should already be clear that this is an unusual and original book. It is one in which the word ‘Grace’ recurs frequently: there are short tributes to famous women called Grace (e.g. Grace Kelly and Grace Darling); a set of rather formal reflections on items from an exhibition called Graces at the V & A; and a closing group of poems which seem to record unexpected moments of grace experienced as unsought blessing. But the sequence that I particularly want to comment on is “Grace and Waste” which draws on Paul Simon’s Graceland album and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. And who has ever thought of combining these two before? The poems describe a short visit to a rural area in South Africa by a group ‘aiming to provide spectacles, / assess needs, teach disease – / a health care show’. The party makes the last stage of its journey
led by the vehicle with working headlights, avoiding potholes, pedestrians and roaming goats.
It is difficult to convey, using only short extracts from a ten-page sequence, the inventive and perceptive ways in which Charley describes events and encounters borrowing words by Eliot and Simon to go along with her own compassionate voice. But the opening of the final poem does give a flavour of the artful way she mixes her ingredients (appreciated best, of course, by those who pick up all the references).
England bore me. South Africa undid me This is the story of how we begin to remember On Ramsgate and Margate sands I can connect nothing with nothing. I thought I knew deprivation holed-up in these tripped-out seaside towns. Nothing in comparison to every town shrouded by shanties, the villages lost men in the mines, how a single hailstorm heralds a hungry winter, for lack of glasses they walk blind. Why am I so soft in the middle when their lives are so hard?
Accurateand empathetic observation are expressed in a way that is fresh and engaging.
Grace Notes is a very rewarding and satisfying collection; and even if some parts of it are initially puzzling they most certainly repay re-reading.