Review in Sphinx 12 (2010)
by Nick Asbury
I have a habit of starting books at the back, so these last three (untitled) lines were the ones I read first:
Only love can change
these seventeen syllables
into a haiku.
Striking and quotable, but they left me apprehensive. I’m ambivalent about haikus, wondering if they serve any purpose in English beyond a crossword-like game.
I went back to the beginning.
It turns out the haiku is a recurring feature throughout this collection, sometimes as a unit to itself, on other occasions as a structural device linking a series of verses in the same poem. The collection is also held together by a satisfying sense of place—the Square of the title, and specifically the “thin sheet of glass” through which the poet views life passing.
And life is passing, too quickly. What you won’t find here are complex metaphors or tricksy turns of phrase requiring lengthy decoding. We find out from the brief information on the back of the book that Alice was born in 1912. I don’t know whether she’s still alive or how old she was when writing most of this collection, but you get the strong impression that this is a poet without the time for verbal trickery—she gets straight to the point, often disarmingly so.
How many people would write lines as direct as this?—
All people have to die, some young ones too.
Old people are more likely.
No subtext there, it’s all in the open. The lines come from ‘In Sheltered Accommodation’, which talks plainly of the experience of living surrounded by people approaching the end of their days:
Then little Nellie, a sparrow of a woman,
lively, with her wits about her,
not in much pain, but cancer took its toll.
This is verse that deals in the everyday language of conversation and even cliché (cancer always “takes its toll”), but infuses it with new force. The same poem ends with characteristic directness:
We others don’t say much, but wonder,
which of us will be next.
There is no great revelation here, no surprising twist - just a commonplace observation, plainly stated, but with a weight of insight and emotion behind it.
This is what energises the whole collection and has left it lingering in my mind a long while—the emotion that charges the simplest turns of phrase. The choice of haiku as a structural device is exactly right in this respect, with its characteristic capacity for capturing a single unit of thought or emotion, often inspired by natural phenomena. I came to recognise and appreciate its gentle, understated rhythm.
Returning to the final three lines, they suddenly made a lot more sense.