Review – Peter Sansom, Careful What You Wish For

Carcanet Press, Alliance House, Cross St, Manchester M2 7AQ.   64 pp. £9.99


The language of Sansom’s poems is plain. Most of the scenes they present are very much scenes of ordinary life. Appearances are deceptive, though. In the first poem we come across this:

A huge willow
grows back into the current I rowboated on
one summer forty years ago, impossible,
the glass drop on the oar plunged back
into the heavy green present, this moment,
when a dalmation comes startling by
with its head in a vet cone like a song.

 A lesser poet might have given “impossible” an exclamation mark. Sansom tosses it away between commas, then startles us by embodying the collision of past and present in metaphors that move so swiftly from sight to touch and sight to sound that they achieve a synaesthetic fusion of the senses. Instead of reflecting in discursive terms, he makes us experience the collision for ourselves, embedding it in the texture of the writing as something we almost trip over as we read. At first we don’t register the shift into the past. When we do, we seem to be looking at it the wrong way round. Wouldn’t “plunged back / into the heavy green past” have been more natural? But no; we’re being made to experience how the poet has been so shaken out of the present that for a moment he seems to see it from the perspective of the past. We probably all time travel like that, but it’s rare to find the sensation so directly and forcefully incorporated into the way something is written.

Trapdoors between now and then open in many of these poems. There’s never a feeling of nostalgia, though, just a vivid sense of the strangeness of our life in time. Take “On a Train at Night, 1977”:

In the darkness the moon
above the town with its lit-up spire,
a crescent bay of streets and shops.

We’re the train, stopped for a minute,
that someone might glance up at, a train
outside the station looking down

at the town like a bay.
‘I’m not dead yet,’ the woman says,
lifting her plastic glass to toast me.

‘I’m eighty. That’s surprised you.
My boyfriend’s sixty-three.’ She laughs,
‘He thinks I’m seventy.’

Moll Flanders sits between us
and the notes for an essay. The moon
makes a little start and shunts off

back the way it came, taking
us with it, me and the book
and the year and the town

and the woman who is not dead yet.

 That’s enchanting for its wit, the vividness with which the woman’s voice is caught, and the implicit drama of the situation in which the young man’s silence plays against her uninvited familiarity. It shows Sansom’s gift for working in spare strokes that set off ripples of suggestion and leave imaginative space for them to develop. Everything can be taken in different ways; even the wit shimmers from mischief to wryness as we move from the middle to the end. After a title setting the encounter so definitely in the past there’s something startling about how present and alive the woman is in stanza three. Her lost and recovered vitality is one thing that makes the poem straddle time so hauntingly. Another is the ambiguity of the metaphor of the train shunting off at the end. The underlying idea is that the poet in the present watches the past recede, but the detail of the metaphor keeps one foot of our imaginations on the train, as if we were watching the future disappear. This fits with the way the “me” the poet identifies with in the third to last line is the person he was in 1977, not the one he is now. There’s wryness in the ending, but also triumph. The woman is “not dead yet” because she lives in people’s memories, and in the poem. However modestly, Sansom is making large claims about the value of human life, and of art.

In his own case the art is profoundly democratic. The distinctiveness of his poems often grows out of seemingly minor oddities in the way they’re put together, oddities that make us experience common situations and emotions from peculiar angles, with a renewed sense of wonder. He has a gift for metaphors that kindle in the imagination and glow there quietly, not attracting so much attention to themselves that they arrest the onward movement of the poem, but with a beauty and suggestiveness that makes them linger in the mind, like the description of Outward Bound hikers walking through the dark “with torchlight maps for stepping stones”. Writing of or to family members, of places and popular music revisited, of books and the home, there’s a pervasive generosity to these poems, perhaps seen at its very best in “The Caddy”. There are moving love poems, like the outstanding “You Have Been Gone a Fortnight and the House”. Throughout, a sharp intelligence gives the poems a richness of suggestion that makes them play differently in the mind as you approach them from different imaginative angles, so that “You Have Been Gone a Fortnight” seems a piece of lovingly humorous hyperbole on one reading and a cry of need on another. In short, this book both offers immediate pleasure and handsomely rewards rereading.

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to reprint this review, which appeared in Acumen 84.



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