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The Night We Were Dylan Thomas by Mara Bergman (Arc Publications)

The Night We Were Dylan Thomas by Mara Bergman (Arc Publications)

The opening poem of Mara Bergman’s well-structured second full collection looks back to her first, with that book’s many pieces about or inspired by museums, galleries, photography and childhood. Subsequently, though, it stays largely with personal events, first in New York (city, upstate and Long Island) and then in England, with visits and phone-calls keeping the poet in contact with her mother back in the US. We witness her mother’s increasing infirmity, her move to a home, and her death and its psychological aftermath. The mood eases with holidays (Greece, Andorra, Norfolk) and day-to-day life in Kent, before it reprises the theme of infirmity, now in the poet’s own body. There are several poems, smiling through the pain, about how an injured body-part can make itself a constant focus of attention. This time, however, there’s a reasonably happy conclusion as the injury recedes but leaves as a psychic residue the omens of aging. 

The poems themselves have full sentences, full punctuation, clear meanings, and plain, descriptive titles. Their linear and stanzaic run-ons give a prosy feel. There’s no mythology, no politics, no philosophy, few similes, and no referential puzzles beyond the frequent place-names. Metaphors are the eroded ones of ordinary conversation: water laps, signage screams, maples nod, and sometimes the content is almost breathtakingly ultra-plain:

          I like everything about the small green house:

          its orange roof-tiles that stretch

          over the porch, its neat white fence,

          the steps that lead up from the road. 

You might get ‘we stood in a hush of olives’ at the apogee of the lyrical, but the only non-standard syntax is the occasional verb-list asyndeton, which is anyhow stock poetry-grammar these days for a heightening of emotional intensity, as in 

          […] I said goodbye 

          to my daughter at the station, watched her walk away in her raincoat,

          caught one last glimpse of her raincoat.

The skill is in how the book turns this constrained use of poetic resource to advantage: the unshowy diction and the refusal to flaunt its reading makes the voice appealing, while the ‘minutes and minutiae’ of the subjects and the conversational phraseology generate intimacy, and the candour sympathy. The concurrence of English English (‘rubbish’; ‘lift’) with American (‘the full nine yards’; ‘mustache’; that habit of leaving out the generic part of road-names: ‘Silverdale’, ‘Ravenswood’) provides linguistic interest to match that of the transatlantic topics. For me at least, it also had a high ‘oh-yes-I’ve-felt-that’ quotient. I particularly smiled at the importance of telling unimportant anecdotes in keeping a long-distance relationship going:

          […] What I had

          for dinner or who said what

          at work, all my little ‘nonsenses’ 

          as you called them, as I brought my world

          closer to yours […]

So it’s a collection that’s easy to read but not dull, everyday but not trivial, basically contented but not without suffering, and enlivened by humour and its mix of cultures. For those of us already won over by The Disappearing Room, there’s enough similarity to treat it as a returned friend, and enough difference to find fresh enjoyment, while new fans might well want to seek out its predecessor too.

Guy Russell 21st December 2021

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