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Review: Saving Spaces, by Ian Pople

Although the title of Ian Pople's third book may not be a promising introduction - hovering as it does between semi-religious banality and daytime television-programme title - it does pose a question which refracts interestingly over Pople's poetry. 'Saving Spaces', as a phrase, is intriguingly ambiguous between describing the act of a person in preserving a place, and, alternatively, describing the offering, by a place, of some protective consolation. Given that Carol Rumens has noted how Pople's writing tends to come with a 'theological framework' which is 'extra-poetic' (here with a raft of biblical epigraphs and titular reference), there must be a reserve, then, about how much work the poems expect to pass off onto their surroundings. Might they seem dependent on the shelter of faith as a kind of well of ready-made profundity, or is the poetry - as in the former interpretation of the book's title - capable of nourishing its own wellsprings of meaning?

At their best, Pople's words can conjure acutely vivid spaces:

You were running over snow,
snow over the playing Geld.
Your feet were kicking up

snow in arcs from your heels.

from The Bleachers

The repetition and geometric imagery creates an enclosed dramatic arena from which Pople can suddenly move outward:

... grey skies
over bleachers, those skies
over concert halls, listening

to the end of the cadenza,
to the gathering applause,
the applause ending.

This assertion of the relation between things - between scales of time and space, between sensory modalities, between atmospheres - is something Pople does extraordinarily well. The short opening poems of the book tend to feature almost pastorally gentle English countrysides, suddenly interrupted by the bustlings and absurdities of humanity - the relief of finished business, the inexplicable and fleeting thought - which somehow works to affirm how amongst it all we are. Jen Hadfield's T.S. Eliot Prize-winning Nigh-No-Place repeatedly utilises a similar effect.

The longer, sequential poems later in the book, though, seem to take for granted a kind of protective buffer of poetic space, failing at points to earn their grandiose conjecture. In the Ashberyan but unmoored mélange of The Aerial Orchids, say, when The Shearer and the Lamb opens


Above the roof-tree is
sky in torment where
birds rage and angels...

it seems difficult to find the 'honest participant in human relationships' which the blurb rightly discovers in Pople's more successful poetry.

These criticisms, though, should not, be allowed to eclipse Pople's valuable success in creating a series of delicate worlds in which ways of being can be explored with a genuine insight and innovation:

Between the motorway
edge and the dead
ground lies water -
between the railway

tracks imprinted
snow - is to see
in one way and remember
in another understand

and store differently -
an original under
the lid of a petrol
station photocopier

from Confessions