Monday, January 17, 2011

Helena Nelson: The Teller

Like Rachel Fox, I’m won’t review Helena Nelson’s new collection, Plot and Counter-Plot. I know Helena and she published my first chapbook with HappenStance Press. However, this is my blog and I can do things here which I couldn’t do anywhere else: I am going to look at three poems – one today, the others will come later in the week.

When I first started to read Plot and Counter-Plot, I rattled through it at an alarming speed. The poems seem to invite this approach, as they employ plain language, ordinary syntax, and punctuation in all the right places. I thought the poems were ‘OK’ but there was a voice in my head shouting, “Slow down! That’s no way to read poetry!” And when I slowed down and started again, I realised how much I had missed first time through.

Take ‘Teller’, as example, an eight-line poem in couplets, set in a tight iambic tetrameter and full rhyme scheme – AB CD AD CB. On my initial quick read-through, I wasn’t much impressed by this poem. The narrator tells her story to the rain, the rain tells it to the trees, the trees recount it, and the narrator is left with an empty breeze and has to begin all over again. “Hmmmm, so what?” I thought.

So, quite a lot... Reading it again, I wondered how it was possible for me to have missed so much, but that’s what happens when you blast through a poem without giving it due consideration. The first line should have alerted me that something odd was happening – “Umbrella-ed here in Autumn light”. I am thinking Mary Poppins, an uncanny entrance – not literally Poppins, but certainly magic-realism of some kind. It could be the narrator simply is carrying an ordinary umbrella, but the oddity of “umbrella” being used as a verb and acting on the narrator, who appears to have no choice in the matter, speaks against that.

So we’re whisked out of normality into an eerie half-lit world (“Autumn light” isn’t accidental), and the narrator tells her life-story to the rain – as you do... The rain passes it on to the leaves and moss on a tree-bark. The third couplet lifts the poem way beyond standard poetic fare:

The bark recounts, but not quite right,
the plot and counter-plot of loss.

It’s like Chinese Whispers. The bark isn’t accurate and the story comes out slightly wrong. The poem might be about communication, about what gets lost in telling, and the life story is itself both a ‘plot and counter-plot of loss’. Who thinks of their own life like that? The poem invites us to do so. A life has a story and also an anti-story: what gets missed out, forgotten, misinterpreted, told all wrong. It strikes me that the bark’s mistake mirrors our own attempts to tell stories, as getting it ‘quite right’ is virtually impossible.

The result is an ‘empty breeze’. The story is nowhere. The narrator’s attempts to tell it and have it soak perfectly into the world seem to have failed. Perhaps we could read this as a parable on writing (not the only way to read it, of course) – every poem is born to fall short. It tells us something and then someone like me comes along and recounts it, but not quite right, as the poem itself – the minute it is retold in someone’s head – ceases to be exactly itself.

Does the poet then give up? The narrator here starts “to tell my tale again.” That’s why we write poems, because the billions written before by ourselves and others weren’t enough to tell what needs to be told. There is value in doing so, necessity even, whatever is lost in the telling. The rain is waiting patiently.

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