Valerie Lynch’s In the Time of Rabbits
ISBN 9781907435782, 127pp, £11
The poems in Valerie Lynch’s In the Time of Rabbits cover a life span from childhood through to old age or, as the title poem suggests, move from “scattered in urgent rushings/ now here, now there” to “The grass was silent and slow/ and the sun/ rarely spoke at all until after mid-day.” Childhood poems can be difficult: do you load each incident with the significance of adult understanding and context or do you stay in the child’s viewpoint and hope the child’s voice conveys or foreshadows the hindsight the poet wants to pass to the reader? Valerie Lynch tries a mix of both. “Sausages” starts,
“The houses all laughed when mother sent me
back to the butcher’s shop. Now everyone
in the street would know how stupid I am.
I told you HALF a pound, she said,
with us standing there in the road.
And this time, get the proper change!
I put the sausages on the slab
and stared up at the butcher
who looked bulgy and big.”
Although firmly in the girl’s viewpoint, it captures the mother’s frustration at a child who can’t get a simple instruction right. It ends on a note of defiance, “…Then I banged my stick/ all the way down the butcher’s railings”.
Whereas “Handhold” starts with a memory of flying kites with a father’s hand over a daughter’s, guiding the kites and ends,
“I look at my hand – it’s too big now to fit
where it once felt safe to soar up and into
the blue; yours has shrunk and twisted
beyond the grasp of mine. How can we
have worn our lives so long that we cannot
manage a simple grasp of two hands?”
The poignancy of two hands no longer fitting because the child has grown into an independent adult with her own life while her father fades into old age is caught in a straightforward image.
The poems from a child’s viewpoint successfully capture a child’s understanding whilst still giving the reader a grasp of the situation with an adult’s comprehension. The child’s voice sounds natural and the limited vocabulary doesn’t grate or feel like an affectation. The lack of phonetic spelling and lack of striving for a ‘cute’ affect strengthens the poems. Thematically, there’s a sense of injustice: the embarrassment of being sent back to the butcher’s shop, the woman who can’t fit her hand inside her elderly father’s, and in “No-name boy” the girl limps home after being kicked by the boy without provocation,
“There was no-one.
No-one to call her brave soldier.
No-one at all.
They have nothing, said dad –
and at Christmas he told her
grudging hands to send them toys
that were not yet unloved.
They kick, she thought,
The target of the girl’s resentment isn’t in being kicked, but the lack of parental witness and support in the aftermath and now being forced to give the bully some toys for Christmas. It’s telling that the child doesn’t rebel or try to tell her father what happened because she’s been conditioned to believe that adult rules are arbitrary and unfair. First forays into the adult world aren’t a resounding success, in “Multiverse”
“She met atoms and nuclei rather late in life.
Just another family, expecting her to revolve
around their outskirts. She was used to that.”
She hangs around for a bit though to discover
“To comfort her, they spoke with awe
of the stupendously massive Higgs Bosun;
she longed for mass, its dignity. But was the
HB just massive, or lumpily obese?
‘We were told’, they said after heated talk,
‘someone called SUSY leads a virtual dance
around HB, with squarks and their quarky twins,
also sleptons and leptons, photinos and photons,
to stop him getting fat.’
She’d looked for a different family since she was
ten, but really, she thought with some indignation,
it might be wiser to pass this one up.”
The young adult discovers science isn’t for her. Marriage is, thought, “The Single Track” starts,
“You said our wedding day closed down the track
you’d run alone and free in all your years,”
The poem ends,
“High up, we watch a buzzard’s solo flight.
You wonder if you might give things a chance.
Some days you walk along a single track.
I hold your hand a while when you get back.”
“In a Time of Rabbits” is a hefty collection, built throughout a life of 90 years (so far) and scribbled in gaps between careers in archaeology, history teaching and psychotherapy. It starts in a Dorset childhood and ends looking back from the vantage of old age. Childhood makes up the bulk of the poems because in childhood events and incidents are experienced for the first time without the filtering of experience and discarding of details an adult would rate as irrelevant. Varying the viewpoint from a child’s to an adult’s memory of a childhood incident gives variety to the tone and voice in the poems so they do not become predictable. The poems are spare in their details, judiciously giving the readers enough to follow and their focus is specific but recognisable.