Review by Bill Kirton
Helen Burke’s poems are full of ambushes. You read along, sharing reminiscences, savouring the comfortable rhythms, admiring the visual and aural images and suddenly, unawares, you’re presented with an absurdity or a marriage of things which don’t belong together or a formulation so perfectly pitched that you want to stop, read it again and reassess it and the context in which it sits. And each time it’s a pleasure, reinforcing the impact of what preceded it or taking it to another level.
It’s no surprise to read that this collection brings together some of the poems most frequently requested by audiences around the world. They’re celebrations of love, of continuity; distillations of the effect of memory as it evokes distances in time and space and yet, simultaneously, cancels them. Some are autobiographical and yet they express feelings we can share, feelings with which we can identify and which stir echoes of moments through which we also have lived. In fact, the poet hopes, in her introduction, that ‘these poems can connect with you at a heart level’. In one of them she writes ‘we are the stories that we tell not with our mouths but with our hearts’ and the notes to another say ‘the stories we write with our hearts are what matter’.
She captures perfect moments, fragments of times spent with her father and mother made of the simplest elements:
‘And we walked home, like two happy dogs
and the sky was duck-egg blue and the grass
was full of four-leaved clovers’
Meanings shift constantly, life is change and yet its essence can be caught and concentrated into a memory. Like her Dad’s Lingo, it refuses to settle into non-negotiable meanings.
Burke’s imagination is riotous. In a poem like Hospital Lingo, the ‘procedures’ the patients have to undergo are distorted, become a parade of hilarious absurdities as she piles gag on gag with meticulous timing. Yes, even though these are lines lying on a page, their timings are as immaculate as any delivered by stand-ups. Read The Christmas Letter (the poem which won the Waterstones Poetry Prize) and see how, line after line, you’re ambushed by gags (aka truths).
‘All the kids have had nose jobs
and the cat’s booked in for a boob job,
but the gardener’s making do with reiki and several flu jabs.
My cocaine habit’s coming on nicely
and the twins have made a blue movie – so hip.
Daddie's married our nanny – again – and
he'll be off to the
(once his heart can face the trip).
The dog has got his own Rolex’
And so on, and so on. It never lets up.
As well as teeming with punchlines, the poem My Wild Mother presents us with a vibrant personality we’d love to know. And we do know her. The poet’s mum and dad live in her verse, they’re so real in her memory and thinking. It’s a great proof of the persistence of love and for her it’s a constant currency.
Her dog, Baxter, is a happy Sisyphus, exuberant about life despite the restraints which mark it.
There is no cure for being free of mind and will.
Baxter, my friend, my alter ego.
Baxter – I love you.
Go on being. Baxter.
The seeming artlessness, the wit, the humour belie the fact that Burke is dealing in profound, existential truths. The instant has multiplicity and multi-valence, life is a ‘shadow dance’. She conveys the passage of time, the distance between various ‘thens’ and ‘nows’ and yet manages to experience them simultaneously. She writes, in The Serving Girl, of:
‘Your presence in your own absence.
Nothing to be done but bear it.’
In short, her poetry is packed full of experiences, conveyed in terms which help us unlock our own. It’s funny, loving, deep, witty, compassionate, fundamentally human. It’s a poetry of happy, energetic protest – not of the angry, proscriptive or restricted political kind but a celebration of living and the refusal to submit to conventions and restraints.