An Upstairs Kitchen


Yesterday I wrote here about poets disappearing. Partly this came to mind via news of Salt’s decision to discontinue publishing single-author collections of poets; and partly I was in mind of what constitutes a poetic ‘career’ having blogged the previous week about Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I ended yesterday’s piece lamenting not being able to find more work of Susannah Amoore, whose work I came across in Poetry Introduction 6 (Faber and Faber, 1985).

I found the book during my final year at university, at a time when I had just started buying books of poems for myself but with no idea of who to read, who was good, in or out. I plunged in, following my nose, badly. My copy of Poetry Introduction 6 cost £3.95. Would that publishers could still make books that cheaply. I found my old copy of Poetry in the Making the other day. That cost £2.95.

A bit of context. Faber and Faber were in their flock wallpaper design period, all those tiny interlocking ffs like some weird prediction of what we all now take for granted on Twitter. I had started writing poems, and had even showed them to a few brave friends, but had no idea how to get published or connected to the world of publishing. Every one of the poets in Poetry Introduction 6 appeared to me to have arrived. I hoped some of that would rub off on me, just by owning the book.

I am not (and was not) a complicated reader. I plunged in, following my nose, badly. It was not complicated.In my clumsy and still adolescent way I ruthlessly placed myself at the centre of every poem I read.

Susannah Amoore is the first poet in the book. Poem 1, page 13, is called ‘Long Sight’. As gangsters and cops say in CSI Miami: I am listening. It begins:

If I squint
I can nearly see myself now
as I was in that 
childhood-like summer of '71.

The poem as act of remembrance, as childhood reminiscence, sepia photograph, as 'blurred Liberty print'. I liked that. Keep it coming, I thought, this is what I know, this is what I want to do, yes.

Poem 2, ‘At the End of April’, page 14, contains a description of a cricket wicket being prepared. What was there not to like? Poem 3, ‘Dawn in West Hampstead’, page 15, is about breastfeeding. In West Hampstead. But wait. It is hard to overestimate the effect that proper noun had on me.

One, it meant you could use ‘real places’ in poems, i.e. places which weren’t really that poetic (I had once tried to write a song about the Nautilus chip shop in West Hampstead. It was a disaster). Two, I saw you could trust your reader. You did not need to put an asterisk at the bottom of the page saying ‘West Hampstead is a not very exciting suburb of North West London, to the south of Hampstead’. Three, and most exciting of all, it meant we were practically neighbours!

Slowly, and badly,  I was learning that you could put stuff in poems which were ordinary. Parks. Trees. Bowling Greens.  Stuff no one else was looking at, places no one else went but which were now special because just one person had stopped to look. Bamburgh beach. West Hampstead.

Poem 8, page 20, was called ‘An Upstairs Kitchen’. The chaotic student house I was living in also had such a room, also ‘high in the back of the house’. By now I thought Susannah Amoore had a hotline into my head. And by now you know I was in the habit of connecting as much of my life as possible to the world of the poems I came across. Like Amoore my kitchen had a view of trees, a park; and like Amoore, I had been known to ‘easily leave the peeling/or cleaning to drift and lean/on cool glass’.

As I said yesterday, her work can be described as ‘delicate-domestic’. Re-reading the poems this week I have been pleased to find knock-out lines and phrases each of which expands and makes memorable the poem’s humble origins: rooms ‘lamp-lit by tea time’; ‘bulky young birds teetering on the edge of/flight’; ‘The North Sea/waits on the left, wickedly grey and cold,/experienced at fingering wrecks,/smoothing bones.’

I should have written to say thank you. Maybe I just have.

An Upstairs Kitchen

It is strange that I used to think
the summers were best in this kitchen
high in the back of this house:
a time when thick greens
from the trees and the park beyond
smother the windows 
and enter the room.
A time when I easily leave the peeling
or cleaning to drift and lean
on cool glass, drawn
by the astonishing pink of the jay,
by short bare legs which distantly 
lift the swings, by the dog
racing the trains.

Strange, because now is clearly the time
I like best. The Bank Holiday fairs
crammed close round the oaks
have all gone; old ginger leaves
are heaped soaking and deep in their place,
and the footballers' turkey-red shirts
flare through the branches.

And some days, on the top edge of the far
distance, through bare trees,
I can see the tower of the riverside
church, where a mother lies
buried with six of her children,
three of them drowned 
at different times.

How surprised she might be to know
that more than a century later
I worry in winters
over her carelessness and pain,
while the iron gently noses its way
between buttons and pleats
with soft steam sighs.

Susannah Amoore, from Poetry Introduction 6 (Faber, 1985)

Lifesaving Poems


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