There are so many things that I responded to in this
collection, I have to review it backwards, by starting with a poem first:
and barefoot I return
The trees are covering
the street lights,
my hand on the far side
of your wrist
and all that withstands
People in bus queues,
they lean and sway
and put down bags and
take them up again.
Death steals us back.
And tonight someone is
whistling as they
walk along the pavement
is taking stride after
stride with air in
is wearing clothes that
fit and move
is carrying objects dear
is walking home never the
I haven't chosen this as a `best` poem, but because there are elements which
return throughout the collection. Death is something to wrestle with, or find
a way to claw free from, all the time. And then there`s the way Randell poems
tend to sweep in and out of temporal focus; there seems to be human life/time
and tree life/time, where trees represent, perhaps, an idea of being both in
and outside of time at once. They have something to show or teach us about
enduring, and re-turning to life in the midst of ongoing tragedy. For
example, Randell wants to show us `how the big trees are so big` (from 'tell
them how easy love is'), and shifts the focus from a child`s sleeping frame
to `the white limbs / of the young trees behind your head`, (from 'I am
touched by your fear'), which works as a physical comparison and a
temporal/cosmic irony. In `Diary of a Working Man`, `he cannot take his coat
off but walks / into the university of the tree...`. A tree is an education; an
The way Randell uses language can rattle and soothe in turn:
A crippling in the gore
where the seams of the
make a join in the raft...
lilt over the sway
by the bridge and the
(from 'Seven Poems')
This strange, slightly ungrounded vibrancy in the language, set against the
often halting, brittle structure of her poems, creates a sense of movement
through time, which is heightened by the shifts in focus. One moment you are
in a High Street bus queue, the next staring down at the whole of humanity.
It`s a bit unnerving, and I like that. (Now I`m thinking 'Well, staring down
like some kind of recording angel sitting in a Big Tree', but I kind of like
that as well.)
The absolute engagement with her subject allows Randell to throw in surprises
which knock the reader sideways, such as this, from Diary of a Working Man
Like turning a wet
shirt inside out
the room was in his
Despite the subject matter (pain, disappointment, sorrow, grief... you name
it, it`s here), there is no emotional trickery in the poetry; we are not being
`worked` toward a feeling or attitude about life. The stories are shown to
us, and we can see them or turn away. In the longer poems, such as `Hard to
Place`, and `Along the
Landings`, what is documented just is how it is, rather than how awful it is,
or how it could be if only. I think this is very hard to do well, because so
much of the poet has to be left out of the writing. But Randell takes us on
a journey through a landscape which, however much you want it not to be true,
(fairer, or less chilly), just is true, and I applaud her ability to stand
back, out of the frame.
`Songs for the Sleepless` is another long sequence of poems, and I think it
is a huge and awe-ful piece of work; it goes to the very bottom of a dark
well, and repeatedly climbs and claws back to the light, to slip back, and
climb again. There`s a kind of inevitability about the movement of it, like
the fact of being alive and having to put one foot in front of the other, as
an act of trust.
' Everything you are this
minute flows away faster than a breeze. It takes pain
to burn through time, to turn a spot on
the wall into the centre of the world
now and hereafter.'
But then there is
all that attempt
all the effort of
all the sitting
around and hallo
and see you
but then the
Moorhens gather together each morning whatever
and the frosting
trees are gladder than ever.
A pianist breaks
his hands on the chords
but it is only a
like death it comes
It goes away and
without realising it
we are back again with
our lips in shreds
with nothing to say but
that its gone and we`re alone
with the weather and the
remarks of the trees
are but efforts to make
The sequence barely resolves its preoccupations. There is a stoic imperative,
`you must` (keep going), which you don't even have to believe. There is also
no trace of self-pity, resentment or even anger; this is the world, our
lives, the time. And out there, the trees...
I suppose there is a certain drama about these poems, but not melodrama, no.
It`s bound to be difficult, if that with which a poet wishes to deal happens
to be death. There is here both an emphatic resistance to death, (and
death-in-life), and a tribute to the finality of it. What bleakness or
futility the poems might express is absorbed in the treatment; the language
moving between beautiful twists and a bald simplicity. Take these lines from
`This belonging, this us`:
Our tiny childrens
hearts are lanterns / of promise...
The rivers / dark
silt tenders less...
Life is O.K.
It has a lot to
By and large...
And although I shouldn`t think that Randell intended to put the notion of
salvation into these poems, there are, always, the trees. They are somehow a
kind of placebo, and certainly a consolation.
The fact that many of these poems manipulate the language to and fro so
easily, so widely, as well as moving from the heart`s close-up to the long
panned shot of Everything, makes them hard to dissect, or quote from. You
need the whole piece. You actually need the whole book. I think this is why I
have found it difficult to review in pieces, as it were. The poems complement
each other, build on each other, often with repeated phrases in separate
poems; `heart like a Robin`s egg` and
`to what can the heart be blamed`, for two.
Jane Hardy of The Guardian says '(Randell) ... has virtually created a new
genre - the case history as fable.' Well, I think perhaps U.A.Fanthorpe has
been doing this for some time, but Elaine Randell`s case histories appear to
be presented by the people themselves, rather than through a poet-medium. And
there is far more to Randell`s work than the case history/fable, so it`s
misleading to dwell upon that aspect of the poetry.
To say I`ve been delighted with this book is also misleading; I`ve been
peculiarly horrified and elated in turn, and once or twice I really did get
that neck-prickling sensation some writer-I-can`t-recall-who said was the
measure of a good poem. Some of this might be recognition, as I used to work
in mental health, but that`s not even half of it. These are raw, sometimes
howling poems, which make you shift in your seat, but they are true and honest
and I`m very glad to have experienced them. In the whole collection, I found
one dud, but I`m not going to spoil things by saying which one.
© Sandra Tappenden 2006