Helen Burke has written in several genres but it’s her poetry I want to write about because, while lots of modern poetry alienates me by, it seems, being deliberately obscure and ‘difficult’ or following seemingly arbitrary forms and structures, hers is totally accessible. It can also, as often as not, be fun, which is so refreshing when so many poets appear to assume it’s a form which demands hand- and soul-wringing angst. Yes, there are moments of nostalgia, loss, bewilderment in Helen’s work, but the overriding impression one takes away from reading a collection such as The Ruby Slippers is that she’s come to terms with the things and the experiences about which she writes, she knows them. Their resolutions are sometimes abstract but mostly express an acceptance of how things are and a wonder at the lives we live and the people we meet.
Her voice is definitely that of a poet, even when she’s writing prose. If you want to know what writing is, just read the prologue to The Ruby Slippers. It has no broken lines or apparent attempts at metric schemes, but its rhythms and its images definitely make it a poem.
The poems themselves don’t set out to baffle or impress, nor are they full of fashionable tedium or grandiose self-importance. They do occasionally echo with the fleeting, intangible abstractions one associates with poetry but mainly they’re full of people and objects, shrewd observations of who these people are, how they behave and the tiny things that single them out and give them their uniqueness. The objects brim with meanings, memories, associations that recall past events, the person she was as a child, the person she was before her arthritis made her days so slow and painful. Each poem is carefully, cleverly crafted, leading the reader gently along paths which seem familiar or predictable only to end on a line which reveals a different truth and, with a smile, chides you for being presumptuous.
They contain unexpected turns of phrase, many narrative sequences which bind people and objects together in simple gestures which become iconic, imply greater significance, outlast the people who made them. She asks ‘How heavy is a whale’s dream?’, she races caterpillars with a cousin, bemoaning the fact that hers isn’t performing as he should:
‘My caterpillar is too laid-back.
It was a mistake to call him Ringo.’
There’s a nostalgic ache in some of the poems, such as My Red Sandals and Bless This Handbag. It’s not an expression of regret, however, but of gratitude that the experiences were lived at all. It turns them into moments that persist, that are still accessible. There’s tenderness, nostalgia without regret, rhymes, euphonies, and above all rhythms that are close to those of the everyday but shift subtly beyond them. Burke’s imagery doesn’t aim at verbal dazzling; it’s of that gentle, understated kind that acknowledges the potential values in everything and opens new perspectives on ordinary objects to make them resonate with fresh associations.
Whether it carries threads of melancholy or the sheer exuberance of being alive, every single poem is a pleasure to read. There’s word-play, wit and, above all, humour. There are deliberate absurdities, too, but ones which extend rather than question the realities we all take for granted. It’s tempting to quote the whole of the poem Drawing Dogs, in which she says they’ve ‘begun to seem more like people than people’. She feels safer with them, appreciates their laid-back attitudes, their honesty and near the end, she writes:
‘In their heads, all of them are riding motorbikes across France
Without a care in the world.
And most brilliantly of all – they do not write poetry’.
Her imagination pulses as she describes the world On the 14th Deck of the Cruise Ship Aurora where there’s ‘no yesterday or tomorrow … there is only NOW’. Her insights, love poems, memories, absurdities, enthusiasms all use apparent artlessness to transcend limits, re-imagine sets of connections, sense the unity of everything, and articulate the importance of the perceiving consciousness.
What a pity that more poets don’t use their craft to open up the world as she does and show us the richness around us. This is poetry that’s the perfect antidote to ‘Poetry’.
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