“The Five Petals of Elderflower” Angela Topping (Red Squirrel Press) – poetry review

The Five Petals of Elderflower Angela Topping book cover“Five Petals of Elderflower” uses the title poem, also the first poem, as a structure for the whole collection giving it a sense of unity. It’s important to note, though, that the collection does not have to be read in order, each poem can stand alone too. The title poem can be thought of as ‘five ways of looking at elderflower’, one for each petal. The first section zooms in for close examination, the second explores a different voice – here the poet’s father, the third focuses on memory, the fourth uses synaesthesia and the fifth a promise. In the fourth section,

“Elderflowers sing jazz, each petalled phrase
plays another variation on the last.
Its saxophone voice rises above twanged strings
of cello and double bass, holding the melody
as it flies high. Notes dance round our feet:
we wade in sound. It’s a five bar blues,
scrolls of baroque, rising like smoke, tasting champagne.
White is not white, is green and cream and ivory.
And it sings the blues.”

It has the exuberance of spring and, despite the last line, it feels celebratory. The enjambment used on most lines propels the rhythm forward. I not normally a fan of nature poems, but this is an exception. In contrast the rhythms in “They Pose Together” feel appropriately stiff where a mother and daughter have posed for a formal photograph,

“The mother’s in black: embroidered cross-over jacket
pinned with watch and brooch. At her throat
squats a cameo, knotted hands display a wedding ring.
Her skirt is stiff as buckram. Practical black lace-ups,
polished like lumps of coal, show under her dress.
Whitening hair is gathered back, unsmiling mouth
gives nothing away. Her back is upright in the chair.

The daughter perches on the chair’s arm, balanced,
one foot tucked behind, waiting to launch into a waltz.
White shoes and stockings, lawn dress delicate as paper.
She has her mother’s cheeks, without the fold and crease;
matching dimples in their chins. Her smile opens
on pearl-white teeth, lips softly parting.
No clip can restrain her dark curls where they spring.
They are hinged together, one a negative of the other.”

The accumulation of images build a bigger picture. A mother is stiffened by experience and used to hiding her inner life, whether grief in widowhood or the need to conform to society’s expectations and restrictions. Whereas the daughter is ready to move and grow, not yet restrained by her place in society, not yet heeding her mother’s warnings. Warnings of a different kind surface in “New Year”

“Rime freezes mittens on the bridge rail.
We speak of things that do not matter,
emerge from trees into a clearing
where a sycamore spreads its shade.

When snow falls, it will change everything
make a page for you to write on.”

Cold weather forces the walkers to keep moving, just as talking about “things that do not matter” keeps a conversation going and allows a connection to be maintained even when an issue is being avoided. In a country where snow is not inevitable, it suggests it is a metaphor. The blank page suggests erosion of memory. The poet allows the readers to imagine what that will mean, trusting that images of nature in hibernation will guide what the reader thinks.

A squirrel takes on anthropomorphic qualities in “Red Squirrel”, where a thifty mother,

“She squirreled away sugar,
stacked bags in her wardrobe
behind Dad’s swinging braces
where it set like concrete,
a wall of sweetness;
poor replacement for him
who honeycombed her life.

These days, I think of her
with red pelt and feathery tail.
Scarce and always looked-for,
she leaps up perpendiculars,
on a quest for hazelnuts,
her neat claws clinging
to rough surfaces of trees.”

“Five Petals of Elderflower” is a coherent, crafted collection, rooted in the nature that looks at the wider world through a perceptive lens. The voices vary and the poems feel organic: allowed to grow and shape themselves instead of being constrained to a straitjacket of form.

Five Petals of Elderflower” by Angela Topping is available from Red Squirrel Press.

Angela Topping also has a blog.

One Response to ““The Five Petals of Elderflower” Angela Topping (Red Squirrel Press) – poetry review”

  1. angelatopping Says:

    Reblogged this on Angela Topping and commented:
    I am very grateful to Emma Lee for this thoughtful review of my most recent book. Red Squirrel Press is sold out but I have some copies at home for sale, so if you are interested, contact me.

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