D. A. Prince’s work was previously better known to me through her once-regular contributions to the New Statesman’s weekly competition, a minor literary institution and an endless source of humorous invention. I had wondered whether Prince’s published poetry would draw from that same vein of playful humour and subversion, but what I found in these two collections was something far richer and more satisfying.
Nearly the Happy Hour opens with a poem which does the opposite of its title; “Writing Just About Parsley” writes about parsley, true, but it also observes the passage of time and seasons as viewed from a familiar environment – the poet’s own kitchen. After a poem that hints at slow decay, its final line tells of being alive, still:
This year it’s flat leaf; you need to know that.
The title poem, “Nearly the Happy Hour”, paints a delightful abstraction of four ladies who lunch, each one riddled with indecisiveness and procrastination, perhaps ruing missed opportunities and the lack of spontaneity which may accompany old age. It’s a fine conceit and is simply but lovingly executed. Deeper preoccupations with ageing and ultimate death are explored in “The Going-Away Dress”, in which the garment in question
…sighs like silk
inhaling the dust of its own passport.
before then going on to observe that the time of its wearing is approaching;
It could be night. Or autumn. Or soon.
“Clever Ways to Create a Clutter-free Spacious Home” continues in a similarly fatalistic vein
Consider doors – and when, exactly,
you last used one. You have not yet escaped.
“Attachments”, with its uncomplicated examination of personal nostalgia and the fragments of memory and possessions, delivers a beautifully honest summation of what it’s important to leave behind:
If someone you love
understands just a small part, it’s enough.
The collection’s final poem “The Other Side” imagines the anonymity of being a ghost, playing with a familiar image from TV and movies of the invisible recently-dead individual who still inhabits the world that it can neither manipulate nor escape. The poem is shot through with crushingly sad flashes as the poet imagines what it is like to be a spectre, or perhaps these are just observations on how the old become progressively invisible to the young. The last line is part joy, part anguish,
And, at last,
all the freedom you ever wanted.
The overall impression in this 2008 collection is of a person putting their affairs in order – personal, emotional, spiritual. The themes of anxiety and resignation as life hurtles towards its end are deepened by the mundane, domestic settings of many of the poems. All, however, are leavened by a dry wit and wryness which suggests that the ride, though appearing to be nearing the end, has been entertaining and worthwhile.
Six years on, has Prince’s sense of an impending end been replaced with anything resembling optimism? Well, yes. The handsomely bound and beautifully-presented hardback edition of Common Ground shares some of the same preoccupations as its predecessor (childhood and its cargo of memories, the nostalgia for things and people gone or close to going), but it is less preoccupied with endings than with holding on or holding out for things that matter – holiday souvenirs, courtship, marriage and family, the commonplace and common places of life. “Until They Close” is a vibrant, evocative portrayal of street-corner hardware stores and their ability to mend the present through the utilisation of the past, a gift with which poetry shares, and of which, when visiting each time
…you’re glad they haven’t shut for good.
Many will recognise the sense of ennui and sadness at the passing of a week and the starting of a new one as portrayed in ”What’s My Line”, titled after a television panel show which ran through the 1950s and 1960s. Doubtless some people, even as they read this, will be smiling at that memory, and that Sunday night feeling is perfected in the poem’s pay-off
The rest of the week sits
on the shoulders of the likes of us.
The combination of nostalgic observation and domestic rooting will appeal to Prince’s readers, looking as it does for truths in everyday objects. This approach is not new in poetry; if Prince’s work is neither radical or challenging, its execution – warm, assured, uncluttered – matches perfectly its ambitions: neither cosy nor lacking in insight. The sharpest example of her work is the excellently-observed “Jack”, telling of the kind of relative which all families have, the one who leaves their hometown, falls out of touch, but who will
swagger back one day, bigger than life.
These poems aim for tidy deportment rather than swagger, and while they are rarely bigger than life, each one of them is life-sized.