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12 July 2015 @ 11:17 am
Review of The Man at the Corner Table by Rosie Shepperd, pub. Seren 2015  


Sometimes a collection has an unusually apt title, and so it is here. The actual man at the corner table is a very minor character in the first poem, "You all have lied"; he just happens to remind the narrator of someone else and she begins to interpret him in that light ("Or that's the way I see it"). We have, then, an observational narrator, the focus of whose sharp observation is often something on the periphery, that might otherwise go unnoticed, and who then creates stories, sometimes extremely fanciful ones, out of what she sees. When I interviewed Rosie Shepperd for this blog, I suggested the Victorian slang word "slantendicular" as a description for her way of seeing and writing, and I'd stick by that as a description of this collection.

The keenness of her eye and ear shows through both in her use of telling detail, like the "sweet circular soap" at the hotel of assignation in "A seedy narrative or moments of lyrical stillness?" and in her use of voice, in poems like "What I need, Bernard, is a bit of notice…" where the harassed wife, talking to her dying husband and trying to finalise funeral arrangements, is both faintly comical and utterly credible:

Are you headlong on Berlioz?
               I'm not trying to split hairs
                                         in your last hours but I have to tell you,
                         for most of us, March to the Scaffold is tricky and
                                         we'll need a pick-me-up
                         with Stuart and Audrey
                                                            bringing Marion from Stevenage.

Her sense of the humorous and indeed ludicrous in human behaviour and relationships, together with her willingness to follow Corporal Jones into the realms of fantasy, make these poems very entertaining to read – it isn't so often that "serious", thought-provoking, moving poems are also downright funny. But the humour never morphs into cruelty or condescension; she has great sympathy for her cast of often oddball characters. The end of Bernard's wife's one-sided conversation with him is tender, if still obsessed with funeral catering:

Your hands were always fresh and cool,
                                                rather like ham, Bernard, rather like
                                                            a nice tinned ham.

In "A seedy narrative or moments of lyrical stillness?" the question mark makes it clear that what could be read as a quick, meaningless sexual encounter might also be seen as something more tender and significant. And in "Syzygy", the storm phenomenon where sun, moon and earth align with devastating consequences becomes a striking image for a couple whose marriage seems not to have been as close as it might, before they were whirled into the air:

When the storm spins them tight like a bobbin, their mouths spring open
in a double O and I am almost sure I hear a gasp at right angles to the rain.

It skids down the roof as Mr Jarvis follows Mrs Jarvis along the gutter,
their faces drained of colour, her all-weather mac blown out in a parade.

He wears tan driving gloves and puts one hand on his wife’s left arm.
She holds his finger in one of her mittens, the one with a lime green run.

With some shyness, they peep just inside the second floor of our house.

The unity they finally achieve is genuinely moving:

Mr Jarvis nods, looks at his wife, then over her shoulder at the clouds that

line the unexpected sky and, at a distance, I see surprise in their eyes.
They laugh at the same time as their arms struggle, then join in a circle,

their shoulders suddenly sure how to bend towards each other, to be together,
at once aligned, even if this is not really, quite the end.

Unsurprisingly in such a poet, she is very aware of tastes, colours, textures, smells, "the silver inside rosemary needles" ("I must lie down where all ladders start") and the "green mist of tea that shapes/the air at Lock Cha" ("You are here"). There are poems here that take a keen delight in the sensual pleasure of food, but they are not "foodie" poems, because behind the food we sense always the relationships it implies and for which it so often becomes a metaphor, as in "I know I've gone too far when I think of papardelle with broccoli":

It doesn't matter and would not matter to you that you didn't
               like this dish, but even as I warm

your favourite bowl, I smile at my final stab, add purple sprouting
               broccoli, diagonally cut.

You might like the colours, the way the steam holds the flavour
               of Alpine milk and the bitter

black pepper that falls in so many places like sand or gravel or ash.


As you can see, one of the many things by which this poet does not feel limited is conventional layout. Some poems are completely left-hand justified; many are not, and spread themselves exuberantly over the whole space available on the page. If I thought this needed any excuse, I would suggest that it can be a good way of controlling pace, goes with the headlong, tumbling sentences she often likes to use (and which are such a change from the tidy, clipped lyricism of many collections) and just generally adds a sense of freedom to the whole concern. But actually it annoys me that anyone feels there has to be an excuse for unusual lineation: why is left-hand justification the default for which there needs to be no reason other than the convenience of editors and printers anyway?

I have known Rosie Shepperd's work for some time, and this collection excites me not just because of what's in it – a skilled, urbane, humorous, totally individual voice that simply doesn't sound like any other – but for what is not. I was flicking through looking for poems I'd liked and remembered, just as good as those that made the collection, and they weren't there, which means not just that this poet had strength in depth to choose from, but that she has the nucleus of another collection. I do hope it comes soon, and that many will realise, as Seren had the wit to do, what an unusual, energetic, sparkling voice this is. Any publisher who failed to see the potential of this collection should now be quietly kicking himself.