The review below appeared in Orbis 160 and is reproduced with permission. For more about Orbis see Kudos and Orbis on Facebook.
NOSTALGIA AND LOSS: REVIEW BY NOEL WILLIAMS
Counting Rain by Karen Dennison, 70 pp., £7.99, Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd.
There’s much to like in this, Dennison’s first, collection: the lyricism,the delicacy and the highly personal tone. We can’t know if it’s autobiographical, of course, but the cradle to grave arrangement and the focus on topics such as childhood and parental loss together with the emotional intensity of many of the pieces, suggest a poet mining subject matter from her own life.
I haunt charity shops,
rummage through other people’s junk
searching for my childhood.
If not, then she has a sharp imaginative empathy, particularly sensitive in the exploration of loss, nostalgia and the disappointments inherent in the passage of time.
I like, too, how she often finds strikingly original images to do her emotional work, as in ‘the swallow stitching the stubbled field of the sky’ (‘What Is It?’) and clever phrasing, such as ‘she splinters / her mouth’ (‘Rehearsal’).
However, I feel the work might sometimes benefit from stronger editing, for some of it is not fully confident in its ideas. Dennison often relies on extended metaphor or sustained analogy. ‘Trenches’, for example, relates the stages of a relationship through six stanzas of military comparisons. But occasionally she feels she has to explain the chosen metaphor, thereby weakening it, for example in ‘Grief ’. Also, in ‘Guilt’:
She wrapped her guilt in silk, buried it
…..no fox would dig up/her shame
…..let weeds grow from remorse
…..unearth…bones of forgiveness.
The idea of buried emotion changing through natural process doesn’t need to be laid on with a trowel to work. I feel sure this could be much stronger if allowed to breathe its conceits more subtly, as she does, for example, in ‘Releasing You’ which leaves space in the imagery for readers to fill with their own interpretations.
The best, most impressive poems, it seems to me, are the suggestive and gentle ones, often about childhood or loss, typically infused with melancholy; in ‘Silhouette’, ‘The Doll’ and ‘Closed Window’, emotion is carried essentially by the objects invoked:
On the back of the photo:
the words to a song,
his smudged and faded writing.
But now and then, she presses too hard on the page; an occasional tentativeness leading her to overemphasis. For example, the idea that relationships die in ‘By Heart’:
But I forgot about entropy and thermodynamics,
and the heat-death of our universe.
As entropy and heat-death are effectively the same thing, and both are thermodynamic concepts, this seems unnecessarily repetitive. Across the collection, some images recur, too (six uses of ghost imagery, for example), so perhaps she needs to stretch herself a little further in her next book – she’s definitely capable of it.
These quibbles are small, however, and easily forgiven; the hesitancy of a few poems is more than compensated for by the wonderful intimacy or lyrical exactness of most. I like the promise in this first volume, and expect to see more from Dennison’s imagination in the future.