Many casual observers of the U.K. poetry scene will have heard of Helena Nelson. They’ll know that she’s the editor of HappenStance Press. They might even know of her limericks and performance pieces. What’s unfortunately fading into the background is that she’s a significant, major-award-winning “serious” poet.
I’d been wanting to write the above paragraph for several years. Why didn’t I? Because I didn’t want my views to be coloured by my readers’ knowledge that she was the publisher of my pamphlets. Now that Eyewear Books are bringing out my first full collection next year, it’s time for Rogue Strands to celebrate Helena Nelson’s terrific verse.
Today’s post will concentrate on Nelson’s first full collection, Starlight on Water (The Rialto, 2003), which was a joint winner of the Aldeburgh Jerwood Prize. Let’s start with an extract from section IV of its pivotal sequence “From Interrogating the silence”:
“Your letters matter more than you will know.
You write; I keep them, one by one, as snug
as acorns in their shell. I go to them
if all else fails. When the north-east wind blows
and tugs at the curtains, when my heart has dug
a hole for itself, when nothing can stem
obliteration – no place else to go –
I open them...”
There’s no need to explain these lines, yet their clarity doesn’t impede their emotional impact. Quite the opposite is true. This isn’t so-called restraint. Only rare talents have so light a touch as to be capable of transmitting such depth and authenticity of feeling via apparently simple words. Nelson is keenly aware her challenge is not in expressing something that is true to her but in making it true for the reader.
And yet she’s also at ease in several different registers. Among the performance pieces and biting satire, there are sudden changes of gear like in the following extract from “When my daughter goes down in the dark”:
“…Her eyes deepen. She puts on pearls,
dresses herself in darkest blue.
Shadows soften her mouth and chin,
new frost sparkles beneath her skin."
Anorexia is never explicitly invoked, but its menace is all-pervading in this poem. Language becomes sensuously dangerous in Nelson’s hands. Yet again, another tone, yet again a coherent idiosyncratic eye holding her broad poetic vision together.
And there are more examples to come. The Philipott poems, for instance, deserve a post to themselves. The collection’s closing sequence, they dissect an entire society via a single couple’s relationship.
The shorter pieces, meanwhile, are simply exquisite. I’m delighted to have Nell’s permission to quote one of my favourites in full here:
Completing the outfit
I used to wish you’d put your hands just so
about my waist, spanning me here and here,
encircling me in love and trust, although
you never knew I cherished the idea.
A small thing. Doesn’t matter. Time is gone.
Your hands, so square and kind, don’t speak to me.
My waist has come to terms with life alone.
My breathing’s calm. My heart goes quietly.
I find these days I like to wear a belt.
I bear it like your touch around the core.
It keeps me safe. Quite recently I felt
I had to tighten it. I think it’s more
than reassurance in well-seasoned leather:
it may be all that’s holding me together.
This poem’s strength lies in its ability to undermine itself (and its narrator) throughout. The reader only realizes its perfection when reaching the end and immediately heading back to the start.