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Review: Saving Spaces, by Ian Pople

The poems in Ian Pople's third collection force the reader to ask 'saving spaces' for what? The opening poem, Kissing Gate, has two lovers poised at a gate, one of them thinking I was a gate once. Sun, trees and fox prints / at the edge of the snow lead one to assume a country walk, but beyond the gate the view leads to mill chimneys and terraced houses, a town centre / that is settled on the earth. Significantly, the lovers at the kissing gate stand without kissing. And why the past tense in I was a gate once? Where else is a town going to settle other than on the earth?

These are hints that are difficult to interpret. The Long Earth might describe a poet discerning a vocation, but it is a vocation where the difficulties of capturing The Lace Wing in words leaves the writer feeling / around for the final sentence. Pople is not going to offer easy answers to his own intuitions. Hence in A Week of Running beside the Canal he shows us the life of the riverbank with its day-by-day disappearances, an inexplicable holocaust of newborn life, until we reach the final emptiness of summer rain where the bee's / feet touch the flower.

Quoted out of context, that probably seems trite, but it is precisely such 'spaces' that these poems are attempting to describe. What makes you give, what makes / you relent and let go as The Hierophant has it, the hierophant's function having always been to show or reveal sacred things. That Day offers a beautiful example of one of these moments of revelation, when the poet talks of a day when:

I came upon the thing
that I was;
a gull, speckled,
brown, juvenile,
facing the closed door
of the bingo hall,
turning
occasionally,
to glance
at the people
walking past,
as I was.

I think this is something about seeing the other in ourselves, although to try and put it into words other than the ones used by the poet is immediately to reduce it to the banal. The poet saves imaginative spaces where we do not need alternative words. A theory from neuroimaging may be hinted at in Angels of Anarchy, where Forget the left eye, see only / with the right seems to echo the research of lain McGilchrist, with its exciting analysis of right and left brain hemisphere functions; the left hemisphere being the seat of hubris, the right the seat of the imagination. But Pople, of course, is a poet, opportunistic in his imaginative range, more interested in poetic magic than pure science. As he says in the same poem, if you have that expression / in your mouth, I'll use it too.

For me, the most successful poems in Saving Spaces come from the sequence The Shearer and the Lamb. The technique is the same as that used in the shorter individual poems. In elegant quatrains, birds and angels wait for a gap in the clouds / to hold their harmonies; a traveller isn't much surprised when he sees the feathers of a slaughtered bird slip-streamed, / settling silently apart; the smell of a wet summer is pulled deep / into the lungs of a girl and a man crossing the lines / where the track curves / beyond beech trees. There is something of Raymond Carver's aching short stories in these vignettes, but a much more obvious influence is Cavafy. What could be made / of Cavafy one of the poems asks, and a later poem, delicately poised in memory, could almost be Cavafy, with the smell of pruned cypress reminding the lovers of when they were in love and emerged from the weekend hotel with eyes / slightly glazed for one final photograph. Just as in Cavafy's Ithaca, in Pople's ecstatic, startling poems, it is the experience which is the meaning.