Stephen Payne reviews Scenes from Life on Earth by Kathryn Simmonds (Salt, 2022)
“Anything now brings her to mind.” This is the first sentence of the first poem of Kathryn Simmonds’s warm and affecting third collection, Scenes from Life on Earth. In the poem, ‘Rhododendron’, it introduces a particular reminding, for the author, of her deceased mother. In the broader context of the whole collection the sentence suggests that even those poems that are not directly elegiac are coloured by Simmonds’s loss, and by familial love. This scheme is supported by the ordering of poems, with poems that directly address or mention the author’s mother (I counted eleven) scattered throughout. In many of the remaining poems, phrases become more pointed by association.
Thus, the second poem ‘Dandelions’, which is, for its most part, a light and amusing ode to those “raggy spats of yellow” that conjure “a festival / on every verge”, finishes with a description of dandelion clocks, when “the flowers shrink to pods […] puffed up white with death” waiting to be “held to light” and “blown with a child’s breath […] to ride on air”. Thus, ‘Moths’, a lively inventory of moth encounters and kinds, which name-checks “Clouded Silver” and “Willow Beauty” and notes their “obsession for this shade-less bulb” also describes moths as “pieces of ourselves returned / in air, / eyelids snipped from the dead […]”.
Several poems about the author’s own daughter allow further reflections on the mother-child relationship. ‘Aged Nearly Three’, which celebrates a young daughter who “runs her nakedness about the house, / squeals to be caught, / a greased piglet at the fair”, also mentions, almost in passing, in the young girl’s voice, that “Yesterday, Grandma poorly.”
… even those poems that are not directly elegiac are coloured by Simmonds’s loss [of her mother], and by familial love
The theme of mother-child relations, across generations, is more explicitly the focus of ‘Unequal Love’, which has an epigraph from E.M. Forster about the asymmetric ties between parents and their children. The poem begins as follows:
So I watch you from the window
crossing shadow into sun,
the grass is high, you wade in deep,
as if your eyes were on someone;
and continues to dread the inevitable later separation: “[…] I had a mother, / she was frail with love like me”.
‘Unequal Love’ is interesting formally, in that its rhyme scheme, ABCB, is in four-line units, but its presentation on the page is in couplets. Variety of form, and especially visual form, is quite a feature of the collection. There’s one prose poem; a couple of poems use metre and rhyme (there’s a villanelle, ‘Suburban Park Rosary’), but most are free verse, with various line and stanza lengths. Simmonds is particularly interested, I gather, in how poems look on the page.
Back to the beginning of the book, and the first stanza of ‘Rhododendron’:
Anything now brings her to mind. In the wrong
dullness of May it is the rhododendron bush
manufacturing its impossible flowers,
great shaggy petals of cerise that 80s shade
which once was everywhere.
It has fourteen lines in total, and we might call ‘Rhododendron’ a sonnet, especially because there is a turn (though it’s after line 10). Lines are irregular, and five lines have mid-line spaces of various lengths, of which three examples are in the stanza quoted. This technique, and the similar one of varying indentations, is present in at least nine poems (see the quotation from ‘Moths’, above, for a further example).
There are some unusual aspects of the way Simmonds uses within-line spaces, compared with other contemporary poets. The spaces don’t seem to replace commas or full stops; they co-occur with full punctuation. The spaces are rather infrequent; in all the poems that contain within-line spaces or irregular indentation, most lines are left-justified and continuous. Sometimes I’m able to imagine a rationale for particular spaces (is the poem ‘Moths’ meant to look moth-eaten?) but my explanations always seem speculative and inessential, and I wind up feeling distracted. Other readers might respond differently, of course.
Sometimes I’m able to imagine a rationale for particular spaces … but my explanations always seem speculative and inessential, and I wind up feeling distracted
Turning to a received form, the villanelle, ‘Suburban Park Rosary’, is conventionally structured, has a complete, full rhyme scheme, and lines of perfect iambic pentameter, but the two repetends vary quite radically through the tercets before returning to their original form at the end:
You say a rosary around the park,
mid-March, mid-morning, two weeks into Lent,
you pray not knowing how prayer leaves its mark.
Blessed art thou dog, thy clueless bark!
Blessed wind-blown daffodils, near spent!
You say each decade walking round the park
what theologian understands the spark
that brings the Holy Spirit’s warm descent?
You say a rosary around the park.
You pray not knowing how prayer leaves its mark.
Simmonds handles the tricky formal scheme (and the religious content) without any compromise to her characteristic style, which remains light and fresh (one of Simmonds’s own favourite words), even when her subjects are dark.
Religious faith is another underpinning theme of this book that I have not yet considered. I don’t share Simmonds’s faith, but I find her openness about it, and the bravery it seems to afford her, appealing. In a similar way to how the elegies colour the non-elegiac poems, so the explicitly religious poems shift my reading of others. One of my favourite poems, ‘Leaf Song’ takes a pun and runs with it to proselytise for faith and community (if I’m reading it correctly), without seeming in the least preachy:
Better to be leaf.
Better to belong
to tree, to be
rotting bit of it than
walk about all day
tormented by a brain.
In terms of the expression in her eyes as she writes, I’d say that Simmonds has the twinkling bit covered.
Stephen Payne is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath, where until September 2020 he taught and conducted research in Cognitive Science. He lives in Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan. His first full-length poetry collection, Pattern Beyond Chance, was published by HappenStance Press in 2015 and shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year. His second collection, The Windmill Proof (September 2021), and a pamphlet The Wax Argument & Other Thought Experiments (February 2022) were published by the same press.