Age: something to embrace or to dread? Something natural and beautiful or a monster that slowly eats away at us? The Emma Press Anthology of Age attempts to answer that question – perhaps one of the most fundamental to humanity – with a quietly powerful set of poems from a diverse selection of writers. We open with some evocative lines from Anja Konig:
Remember that old Nissan
back in Ithaca?
In Nel Mezzo, Konig progresses to gently compare human ageing to the degradation of a vehicle, which may sound simple but plays out in a beautiful, abstract way. This sets the tone for the anthology as a whole: I found the poems quite elegant, with some obvious concepts cropping up frequently – after all, many clichés about age are perfectly true – but being dealt with in a less familiar way. Another example is Hugh Dunkerley's The Storm which puts a twist on the popular trope of speaking about life and death in terms of weather:
Trees he'd have known as a boy,
huge maples, soaring elms, split
or came toppling down in a roar of branches.
Many of the poems deal with the darker side of ageing: helplessness, memory loss, nostalgia. Some are written from the point of view of an older person themself, some from that of a younger relative or friend; some are bittersweet, some rather harrowing. The most painful are those that deal with loss of language or ability from dementia or a stroke. There is Robert Hamberger's Saying My Name:
My mother doesn't know me from Adam.
She's baffled by my face, wonders at my words.
I make no sense…
And the very next poem, Bridget McKenzie's Kennings:
My dictionary consists of
All we spoke of at breakfast
Often retold stories
But there are always wild cards
A number of the poems I would describe as being more about death than ageing – although, of course, the two are pretty closely linked. A gorgeous example is Last Lights by Lynn Hoffman, which asks the reader to
Imagine a tiny glowing light,
a little flame that burns forever
at the very place
where someone died.
(…) Can you see the flames that would burn on Omaha Beach?
(…) Or the hot Hebrew glow of Treblinka
(…) Or the surprised silent halo around Hiroshima?
The poem's ambiguous ending is chilling and guaranteed to linger in the mind. Another death-related poem is Nathan Curnow's Dead Penguins in which the narrator responds to his children's questions about death:
what does death look like? is it a triangle?
(…) My natural reaction has been to explain what life is, but that's been just as difficult. If someone asked if I was really living could I be sure that I was doing it?
Besides the unfortunate penguins there are many other references to the natural world peppered throughout the book. Nature can be reassuring, something that will never end, or can instead be a taunting memory of a happier youth. The former can be seen in one of my personal favourites from the anthology, Joan Lennon's Later:
black feathered trees
a touch of frippery
to soften old shoulders –
the long day
paled to pink
though flame remembered
And the latter in Doireann ní Ghríofa's Holding a Stranger's Hand:
You remember the foxgloves,
their lips pursed, like a sigh stifled, like a mother's blush.
The sun sank slow, painted our faces gold as honeysuckle.
On the whole I found the Anthology of Age very poignant. There is breathing space, however, with loud, angry poems alternating in a neat rhythm with soft, peaceful murmurs. Many facets of age are covered, generally with dignity and respect.
I will finish by highlighting my favourite poem from this anthology, Sandra Horn's On the Ferry. It crosses over several of the sphere mentioned: it describes the inconvenience of age, alludes perhaps to death, is deep-rooted in nature and the elements – and ultimately, like much of this anthology, sings of freedom and hope:
Oh, I am nudging threescore years and ten,
(…) But now I'm up there with the surfer – past him –
Riding the wind on strong and tireless arms.
The Emma Press Anthology of Age, edited by Sarah Hesketh, is out now