Isabelle Thompson reviews Say It With Me by Vanessa Lampert (Seren, 2023)
“There’s always something lying around / to lift us” (‘Say it, Hiker’)
Say It With Me is an extraordinarily human collection that makes me think of the Robert Browning line: “reach should exceed […] grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” I say this because Lampert manages to capture the messy, aching reach of life. That is, she creates scenes where her characters grapple with pain and loss, and experience beauty and love, in equal measure. This is a collection whose characters reach for transcendence, slightly miss it, and live in the messy place in between.
Let’s look at how Lampert achieves this in four poems. Firstly, in ‘Not Like This Park’, the speaker describes an imaginary, idealised park and sets it in opposition to a real, rougher place. “My park will be a bowl to hold sunlight” is the opening line of the poem, and indeed of the whole collection; it sets a precedent for the poems to come, many of which are peppered with lines so lovely I had to make a note of them. This poem shows two sides of human experience – the sometimes grim reality (“bags of shit dangling from branches”) and the striving for better (“My park will have great beds of roses”).
This is a collection whose characters reach for transcendence, slightly miss it, and live in the messy place in between.
‘Letter’ tells the story of the birth of a child and his parents’ subsequent neglect of, and then reclamation of, their allotment. Ordinary events and actions are revealed as miraculous:
We dig with the baby swaddled asleep
or screaming, and sow all our crops
in tender broken rows.
The perfect pairing of the words “tender” and “broken” again works to balance darkness with light. At the centre of the poem is the child, most miraculous of all:
Then they come,
the other gardeners, one by one, to touch
his tiny hand, his head. It’s what we do
on our best days, lay down our tools, forgive.
‘Donor’ addresses a stem cell donor:
You weren’t to know
that a woman was waiting for your cells to be offered
to her body, so they could bloom like a dahlia
in November, flaring orange against the frost,
Again, Lampert captures with great compassion an extraordinary human act of giving, but juxtaposes this with the ordinary. The donor does not want grand gestures. “Isn’t your kind of thank you / a handshake, a beer, and the words cheers mate?
Finally, ‘The Size of It’ involves an accident between a new mother and a cyclist. The cyclist is knocked off his bike, and there is nearly an altercation between him and the pedestrian mother, until he sees her baby:
His finger points, his mouth
prepares to shout.
Then, catching sight
of the tiny child, he lifts
the palms of his wounded hands,
and silently turns to go.
It’s taken half my life to learn
another mother loved that man
whose name I’ll never know.
Aggression and gentleness are held in one hand in this poem.
Two poems in particular celebrate the joys of everyday life. ‘Some Pleasures’ is set against the backdrop of its speaker’s divorce, with the ending describing her taking off her ring and throwing it. However, in the build up to this ending, the poem lists so many (extra)ordinary pleasures that the finale becomes a kind of release, a setting free:
Poodles that lie on their backs
on your lap, front paws folded down.
Removing a man’s tie,
the word gravel.
The sound barn owls make
when they mate.
‘Say it, Hiker’ follows on from ‘Some Pleasures’. “It’s too easy to let lonely win the fight. / The kids are with their dad alternate weekends.” Whereas ‘Some Pleasures’ ends with divorce, this poem begins with it and then builds to a peak as it describes the speaker’s freedom to hike. Near the end of the poem, it tells us that gratitude “waits to lead you by the hand, / points out all the blues and greens”.
The collection as a whole is delicately poised and finely balanced; it contains all the chiaroscuro of the experience of being alive.
Some poems deal explicitly with loss, of a father and of a brother, the latter to suicide. ‘Running’ begins, “I’m running through a scenario / in which my brother John, is alive after all.” The deft use of a comma makes the reader stumble – John is not alive, he is physically separated from life. The poem goes on to list various everyday scenes with an imagined John in them: “John is eating sausages with mustard”, “He’s running a five-a-side tournament.” Finally, it ends:
John has the whole sky,
John won’t die, he’s run through everything.
Most of it wasn’t his fault.
John’s just running, nothing to run from.
The poem offers a kind of redemption for John – it acknowledges pain and death but chooses life and hope. It is bittersweet.
‘Wimbledon 2020’ performs a similar act of redemption for the speaker’s father: “In the new truth, my dad did not die young.” The poem begins with death but is full of life. Its central moment is one of great compassion and gentleness:
Years ago, he fixed a hole in his garage roof.
All afternoon, a blackbird flitted and sang
a song that pleaded for mercy.
She had built her nest in a dry building
with a skylight that was now a prison
with her chicks inside.
So my dad climbed back up his ladder
with a hammer and opened, for that bird,
a brand new door to her sky.
Many of the poems in this collection demonstrate this same redemptive quality. ‘Homing Pigeons’ describes a childhood memory of releasing pigeons from a box:
Inside the pigeons wait
with folded wings, all the longing ache
of darkness for its end. Sometimes freedom
is the sky returned by children.
These poems are mostly free verse and may not appear tightly structured. However, each of them demonstrates a careful measuring of light and shade, a restraint, a held breath that when released unleashes lines of startling loveliness. The collection as a whole is delicately poised and finely balanced; it contains all the chiaroscuro of the experience of being alive.
Isabelle Thompson holds an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University. She has been published or has work forthcoming in a range of magazines including The Interpreter’s House, Stand and The New Welsh Review. She was the winner of the 2022 Poets and Players Competition and a runner up in the 2021 Mslexia Poetry Competition. She tweets @IzzyWithTheCats.