Karen Dennison The Paper House
A collection with solid foundations.
ISBN 9781916480698, 64pp, £10.99
Karen Dennison The Paper House, is a collection that explores relationships, friendships, landscape and art but resists becoming a series of anecdotes by engaging with readers and asking them to think about why certain incidents get remembered when others don’t and how remembering past events or objects is important in the present. In the title poem, there’s a visit to a dilapidated house that feels dream-like where, “Pieces of sapphire swim through my fingers/ the sparkle of coral reef” but the colours turn dark,
“Under grey unstuck from grey,
there’s a jagged square of black I can’t remove,
a tumour in the fabric of the brick.
Death slams the door, shakes the house
by its shoulders at midnight.
In my hands there are scraps of sky and sea;
I’ll paste them to a blank white sheet.”
The narrator only has scraps of memory; whatever was significant in the house has gone. Key here is that it’s pieces of blue that are kept, not the dark, suggesting the narrator wants to remember the hope and joy, to keep the good memories. Likewise, “Shed” starts with an itemised list of fairly typical items that needed repair or were no longer used but ended up in the shed to deal with at a later date which never happened. The poem ends,
“Impossible that the shed still stands
but I think of it there, shifting with time,
battered by rain and wind, a child tugging
at its splintered door, peering inside.”
It’s a childhood memory given poignancy by the narrator not knowing whether the shed still stands. The “splintered door” is ambiguous: flimsy enough to be broken into but still a barrier to the child; perhaps an adult not yet ready to fully explore memories from that time.
“Waterloo Bridge” starts with landscape and history, the narrator stands on the bridge in London in 1999 remembering history lessons when the Thames would freeze over and become a venue for fairs, stalls selling snacks as skaters transformed it into a bridge uniting people from north and south of the river. The poem returns to 1999 at the end,
“We clung to each other that day
with a rigor mortis grip, spoke
of the ice floe that broke away,
devouring people and tents;
joked of being swallowed whole,
sinking down to the city’s silted bones.”
There’s a sense that the fear expressed in the forced jokes isn’t just about being blown off the bridge, but also in young people looking to a future and wondering whether they will stay afloat or find themselves failing. It’s a personal memory made universal.
There is a central sequence of six poems that reflect on childlessness and the death of hope, e.g. in “Wall of Night”
“You said you knew a way to save him. We unzipped
his chest to find tiny strings, pulled at them
with clumsy thumbs and fingers, jolted him like a puppet.
I felt his pulse starting but it was just my own as I woke,
sunlight through the keyhole like a faraway candle,
light’s knife slicing the curtains.”
Each poem is poignant without sentimentality or self-pity. At the same time, they are not just records of personal thoughts and dreams but still engage with readers.
The final section is a series of ekphrastic poems or poems that focus on landscapes. “Gorge du Loup” looks at Wolves’ canyon in Echternacht in Luxemborg carrying a sustained metaphor. “Catching Stars” is after Bill Jackson’s photograph “The Night Ferry,”
“He set the camera to long exposure,
sat as still as the tripod, a fisherman
baiting constellations; caught the world
spinning, stars as needles of slanting rain.
Morning’s first light leapt in his stomach
like salmon spawning, the sun a lantern
searching the docklands horizon.”
Night seems open to possibilities and imagination. The long exposure, necessarily due to the lack of light, is contemplative. The long vowel sounds slow the rhythm. The forensic sun’s lantern steals the mysteries of patches of darkness and feels unwelcome.
In “The Paper House”, Karen Dennison shows a strong awareness of craft and skill at building quiet, thought-provoking poems. The poems are varied in tone and voice but thematically linked so the collection feels coherent. They explore memory, play with time and merge history with the current day, and look at family and inheritance including the devastation of loss with empathy.