Helena Nelson’s 2003 poetry collection ‘Starlight on Water’ is quiet, reflective, beautiful and intensely intimate. Not necessarily personal – in some of the poems the poet has no children, in others a daughter or two, so there is no guarantee Nelson is writing of herself – but intimate with the senses and memories of existence. One of my favourite poems is ‘Ironing Day’:
I’ve never had an ironing board cover that fits
or a baby of my own.
None of the doors here properly shuts
and the garden wall’s come down.
But I shouldn’t ever want to lose my iron.
Pressing hard, I remember
grass between my toes
and the soft rain of September.
This speaks to several of my biases: going barefoot, enjoying rain, tolerating imperfection, triggering memories… and the music of casually rhythmical rhymed verse.
Not all of her verse is in the same style. Some poems are formally structured, some are free; the bulk of the book wanders all over internal and external landscapes, while the last third circles around and around Mr. and Mrs. Philpott, first one and then the other, a very caring couple of very distinct individuals in their mature second marriage. Here are some opening lines at random from the 19 Philpott Poems:
At the kitchen window
in his dressing gown,
Philpott stands alone
his sons have gone.
He’s on his own.
The sweetness of June, a summons conveyed
from strawberry fields, calls her to pick.
She drives to the farm, the car arrayed
with Tupperware tubs.
His father died at fifty-eight
and so he will die at fifty-eight.
He fetches a tumbler.
Two years to go.
Philpott’s anger lives in his shoes.
It tangles in the laces
and he wrestles like a lover
The first part of the book is about all manner of things – the spirit of a dead cat, say, or a night in an isolated Scottish cottage, or the teasing poem ‘Genderalisation’:
Women keep scales in their bedrooms;
Men keep weights.
The latter part of the book is just the Philpotts. What the whole book has in common is, without any sentimentality, the deep love that comes from respect, patience and close observation. It is all very intimate, and Nelson appropriately ends the Philpotts and the book with this short poem, ‘Love’:
He has tipped, he has spilled
his soul into her
and she carries it still
like starlight on water.