D.A. Prince reviews The Sessions by Jonathan Totman (Pindrop Press, 2023)
The back cover tells us “The fifty sonnets of this collection explore talking therapy from the perspective of client and therapist”. These poems, although consistently fourteen lines in length, are not all sonnets, but I’m not going to niggle about how far, exactly, they fit the form. The Sessions is much too interesting a collection for that. What matters about this deliberate choice of length is how Totman uses its constraint across the collection, and how it supports exploration of his day job. He works as a clinical psychologist and these poems examine the process of therapy from both sides of the table – the client, and the therapist, who (necessarily) has also been in therapy.
The structure is simple. Each fourteen-line unit is a ‘room’ and there are fifty of them because the ‘hour’ of a therapy session is in two parts, as Totman explains in ’The Fifty-Minute Hour’:
There’s a sort of holiness to it, that hung time
after we’ve said goodbye, the limbo of leaving
when something has been disturbed.
Ten minutes to bash out my notes – this ritual
of witness and professionalism –
ten minutes to let the dust settle,
think of things I wish I’d said.
The client leaves for “the rush and racket of the day’s business, / its great infrastructure of denial.” That’s the world outside these poems, with its own shape and agenda. By contrast, inside these poems, there is time and space and just two people. That phrase “bash out my notes” pulls me up. It’s the first sign of some pressure on the therapist, and I’ll come back to that later; for now it just opens up another sightline. At this point in the collection we have enough to consider: notably, the client/therapist relationship and how Totman is indicating individuality within a set pattern. The opening poem, ’Room (I) after Terrance Hayes’ makes this visible:
Locked inside this sonnet are a thousand stories
I cannot tell. Where would you like to start? Here
in a pastel coloured, potted-plant-filled room,
beneath the bookshelves and the unbroken
window, here in the soft amber glow, a voice
explodes. Everything we discuss is confidential.
I bend my mind to the business of witness.
Within Totman’s quiet register there is something unexpected, growing out of a couple of line-breaks. Why does “unbroken” lead to “window”? Because it hints at a world where windows are not “unbroken”. Why in all the gentleness of the room does a voice “explode”? Because suppressed emotion can burst out, violently. Then there’s that word: “witness”. We meet it twice in the first three poems. It’s what the therapist does, attending to what is there, really there – not some idealised fiction.
Then there’s that word: “witness”. We meet it twice in the first three poems. It’s what the therapist does, attending to what is there, really there – not some idealised fiction
Language? Totman uses easy everyday vocabulary, sometimes quoting direct speech to keep both client and therapist in view, suggesting their interplay and connections. It’s a tentative shared space, the voices nudging forward, as ‘Quarry’ shows:
What was it, just then, hurtling into view,
shot with panic in the beam of our talk?
Lightly, lightly we go. Through this, through
tangled that, no route to speak of, no track
or none whose destination we can trust.
You lead sometimes, sometimes me.
There’s no jargon, only words we recognise, shaped into poems. Totman’s fourteen-line units come in different layouts: say, a solid block of lines, or couplets (letting the white space do some work), or three quatrains plus a couplet, or even a balanced seven-seven split. Occasionally (for example, ‘The Moments’, which carries a similar metaphor to ‘The Quarry’) the lines are fractured and scattered across the page:
Moments whose sprung hearts bolt like deer
in a rush of traffic the arrows of a dozen eyes
trained on them.
They will not be captured —
traps snap shut on air second-guesses barge their way in
and already they’re off
scarpering squirrel-like up trees along branchways leaping
The layout on the page supports what’s going on in each poem. This visual variety mirrors the therapist’s adjustments in approach, while the language overlaps, picks up earlier suggestions, moves the whole exploration gently forward but within the ‘session’ structure. ‘The Frame’ copies the edges of the room by using a full-width line top and bottom (to represent the ceiling and floor), with the twelve intervening lines of single words in two columns pushed up to the left and right margins (representing the walls). It works by being both inventive and constrained.
Sometimes unobtrusive half-rhyme slips in. Totman, however, does not impose formal structures on his poems. In his first collection, Night Shifts (Pindrop Press, 2020), he writes in free verse and only rarely uses fourteen lines. Some poets naturally turn to fourteen lines for their poems: Totman isn’t one of them.
Some poets naturally turn to fourteen lines for their poems: Totman isn’t one of them. That’s what makes his choice of fourteen-line units in this collection so pleasurable to read: the poet has thought about what best serves the poems
That’s what makes his choice of fourteen-line units in this collection so pleasurable to read: the poet has thought about what best serves the poems. Questions to the client reach out into the reader’s space: “What do you think you’ll take from today?” (‘The Ordinary Weather’) and in ‘Questions’ each line is a question:
Where did you spend the last seven nights?
Have you been able to leave the flat at all?
Have you considered reporting it to the police?
Thirteen lines pose questions to the client while the last line turns round, asking “What am I doing sitting here talking about it?”, a question applying equally to client and therapist. Although therapy sessions are structured around the client, the poems also reveal the therapist, sometimes from lines that seem to sit at the edges of the poems, then (increasingly) from poems that show the therapist/poet and his ways of surviving daily confrontation with human trauma. One of the early pieces, ‘Self-Disclosure’, prepares the ground:
What if I told you that I, regularly, crumble?
That I could really do with listening to my therapist
self (is he worth listening to?). Trust me
but don’t ask any questions. Let me care
but know that I’m leaving you soon. I’ve others to see,
a week to fill, talking, writing, slowing down time.
This is me speaking here, not therapist or poet.
It’s not about me but like you, I’m basically afraid.
Self-questioning and the recognition of self-doubt: these ideas flow through the poems from the start. This is the therapist who has to “bash out [his] notes” because that’s all the time there is, and (in ‘Last Session’) he’s aware of:
what can’t be repaired.
No, I haven’t helped enough. You haven’t
done the things we said you would. The forms
say things are better. You agree they are.
How does a therapist cope? Through therapy. In ‘Assessment’, Totman answers back, ten years late, to his own therapist: “How dare you get it absolutely right.” And through support from colleagues:
Weekly, I climb to your room and over compulsory tea
we talk breakthroughs and dead-ends,
risk and responsibility, moan at the magic
we’re asked to perform.
(from ‘Supervision – for Anne-Marie and Sue’)
Through family, too, where children turn his shredded notes into nests on the kitchen floor, where he joins in to “Sculpt myself / a nest of my own and hatch into monster / then rescuer then newborn baby diplodocus”, while the tossed-around shreddings become “a crispy, confidential snow.” The title (‘The Mess’) describes more than the kitchen:
After they’re asleep, I wade through that chaos.
Here and there, I make out bits of words:
n Hx alc ++ low ag ppl bull v sui anx
I bundle up the mess, feed it to the worms.
The abbreviations leave us guessing, trying to decode the fragments of messy life/lives; metaphor and reality combine.
This is a careful, un-showy collection in which therapist, poet and father come together through a shared language
Gardening is a therapeutic exercise (see ‘A Little Plot’) where the metaphors of roots and clearing accumulate. Totman translates his day job into poems, looks at their shape and structure, finds words that work to convey the infinite connections he makes day after day: this is how he succeeds in The Sessions. I’m conscious how often he uses metaphors of seeing, viewing, glimpsing, and I’ve used them, too, writing this review. It’s a careful, un-showy collection in which therapist, poet and father come together through a shared language, summed up perhaps in the opening lines of ‘The Dodo Bird Verdict’ —
Because that’s what it comes down to really,
inventing ever more complicated ways to say
These “more complicated ways”, as a note tells us, are the different types of talking therapies, the ‘Dodo Bird Verdict’ being a term for the controversial conjecture that all talking therapies are equally effective. Poetry stands outside this. George Szirtes has written that: “A poem isn’t a complex way of saying a simple thing: it is the simplest way of saying a complex thing.” That’s what Totman has achieved in The Sessions, and memorably so.
D.A. Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her second collection, Common Ground (HappenStance, 2014), won the East Midlands Book Award 2015. A further collection, The Bigger Picture, also from HappenStance, was recently published.