A Guided Tour of the Ice House
64 pp., Smith/Doorstop Books, £9.95
Carole Bromley’s first full-length collection is that rare book of poetry: one that this reviewer read in a single sitting. It is a collection that can be rifled through teasingly, or read quickly and avidly, with further dipping in allowing the poems to mature in the reader’s mind. These poems are clean, direct, often personal affairs, neatly formed and warily thoughtful. The poet appropriates and explores familiar subjects, but steers clear of cliché. Odd atoms of a lost relationship will veer in and out of view in a verse’s brevity; memory will rear its deformed and ever-changing face when it chooses, and death mumbles just over the ridge of the next dale, like something left unsaid. Bromley’s is an admirable formal style which can sidle fluidly from loose metre to modest free verse. This is a poetry of snapshots that to me, for better or worse, felt ‘contemporary’ – yet altogether familiar.
The collection’s titular poem reads almost as a manifesto for Bromley’s work, and is a worthy opening piece. Indeed, the poet’s lyrics seem to ensnare and preserve past details not unlike the ‘leaves’ ‘mayflies’ and ‘tail-feathers of a swan’ caught within the deep ice of the ice house. This is true of the potent scrap of memory that becomes ‘Unscheduled Halt’, invoking Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ in its simplicity and terse, effortless beauty. This poem conflates the first time someone rested their head on the speaker’s shoulder with infant children doing so years later, and holds together memories with chronology-defying ease in one ‘midnight’ moment. ‘Unscheduled Halt’ feels like a catching of breath, a brief recess in the calamity of parenthood: the ‘stopped train’ effectively stops time, as far-distant memories collide and interconnect.
The power of memories is a theme that pervades this collection, sometimes with a cathartic emphasis, as in a sequence relating the death of the speaker’s father. The poem ‘Dads’, detailing the father’s talents, resonates with ‘Away’ in which the speaker again thinks of her father – who is undergoing a ‘brain scan’ while she is holidaying in Umbria. The latter’s haunting final stanza, in which doctors ‘examine the tell-tale gaps where memories were’, kindles even stronger pathos when contrasted with the speaker in ‘Dads’ and the memory of her father in childhood. ‘The Morning My Father Died’ evades sentimentality by emphasising the numbness engendered by the immediacy of a bereavement, the speaker finding solace in the triviality of the ‘cafetiere’, a ‘green jug’, and a ‘white dish’; contrasting the comforts of prosaic things with the abnormal gut-punch of initial grief.
For me, one of the collection’s finest poems was ‘In Another Life’. This is romanticism at its most tender, bearing a thoughtful spontaneity to the imagined nature that is the poem’s subject. Fish swim in ‘somersaults’, and the sound of ‘Osprey’s wings’ creates a dreamlike, Edenic atmosphere: the ‘quick, brave flare’ of the addressee’s cigarette in the dark mirrors the momentary flash of the poem. ‘Winding the Clocks’ is another standout lyric, the act conjuring memories of lost family members and leading the speaker to reflect on the fleeting of time. Alternate rhymes echo off each other like the ‘out of step’ clocks sounding throughout the house. This is poetry that anchors the abstract in the concrete, helping to explore thoughts and themes by chaining them to tangible objects: as with the conceit that marries the speaker’s lost father with the clocks he once wound.
However, that’s not to say that Bromley’s style is always of an elegiac bent. There is a wry humour and understated wit at work here that infiltrates most of Bromley’s encounters with loss and grief. ‘The Homecoming of Sir Thomas Wyatt’ is laugh-out-loud stuff, reminding the reader of Duffy’s The World’s Wife as it reduces the ‘father of English poetry’ to a ‘cock-a-hoop’, laughably haughty chap (in his wife’s eyes, at least). The poem is playfully written in the sonnet form and alludes to Wyatt’s ‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’, as the poet’s wife accosts him for not bringing her home a decent gift (‘she’d been hoping for chianti’) from his Italian tour. ‘Man Bathing’ sees Bromley exploring the vulnerabilities of the flesh, accidentally noticing a naked man washing in a window across the street as she reads a copy of Plath’s Ariel. Indeed, the influence of Plath is never distant from this collection, but Bromley far exceeds the unformed imitations so often inspired by Plath’s poetry. Bromley is evidently an admirer, and enjoys a similarly clear and personal style of writing. However, hers is a more human, elegiac and homely strain of poetry than Plath’s bleak, powerful and occasionally brilliant verse.
True, Bromley’s first collection is not revolutionary – nor does it seek to be. Like the ice described in its title poem, A Guided Tour of the Ice House brims with an accessible yet brittle fragility, combining the past and present into one well-whittled whole. These are poems to enjoy indefinitely, displaying an admirably-crafted lyricism, an eye for personal details grounded in our moment, and thoughts and feelings that bear the qualities of timelessness. This is an excellent first collection that entrenches the emergence of an admirable talent.
Dominic Hale was born and grew up in Lancashire, and is currently living in Edinburgh studying for a degree in English Literature. He has been writing poetry for about three years, was twice winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award and has had poems published by Cadaverine, Pomegranate and the Inkwell. At present he is thoroughly enjoying the poetry of Andrew Marvell and Geoffrey Hill.