“The Paper House” Karen Dennison (Hedgehog Press) – poetry review

The Paper House Karen Dennison“The Paper House” contains poems of memory, relationships, friendships, landscape and art from an attitude of exploration and thought. This approach ensures the poems are not just a series of recorded anecdotes, but invitations to readers to think around the modes of memory and why certain things are remembered. “Shed” is a good example of this,

“At the back, a wheel with worn-out tread,
shabby mattress, musty fold-up chair,
padlocked metal box that rattled
and a plastic baby doll with one eye open.

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 starts as an itemised list from a specific shed, discarded items that might have been kept for recycling/mending or dumped in the shed for getting rid of at a more convenient time. The poem ends in curiosity, suggesting readers turn back to their own childhood memories, that “splintered door” has a dual role as both permeable and a barrier of resistance, a hint that childhood memories never really leave anyone.

Likewise “Waterloo Bridge” starts with landscape, here the river Thames as remembered from childhood and also in history when the river would freeze over so a fair could be set up on the frozen space,

“Now the river’s just-ironed denim,
bleach-streaked with the lights
from Westminster Bridge
and the Wheel’s ruby ring,
sprinkling a patch of sequin-pink.

I’d forgotten how London
is part of my skin, an invisible tattoo
of the time we spent,
the vertiginous thrill
of its backbone of bridges.

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.”

It becomes a poem about how our childhood landscapes form us. The fear recalled in the last stanza is just as much about the fear of future change, of growing up and moving on. The personal memories come from remembered experiences, not those provoked by an old photograph or another memento. This suggests it’s the most vivid memories that survive; the lived experiences and deepest desires.

There is a central sequence of six poems that reflect on childlessness, e.g. in “Wall of Night”

“His heart beat was the sound of distant dripping
echoing to nothing. His breath died in the curve of my palm.

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 reflects on the subject without sentimentality and allows the cumulation of images to build poignancy. It takes a huge amount of skill to write about such a personal and devastating event in this way whilst still engaging a reader.

The final section focuses on ekphrastic poems or poems that focus on landscape. “Gorge du Loup” looks at Wolves’ canyon in Echternacht in Luxemborg,

“Here centuries are stacked
like vertebrae, piled high
in sandstone pillars, warped by faults.

These rocks – Eulenberg, Goldfrahay –
lick you with tongues of ancient oceans,
shadow you with wolves.”

It carries its sustained metaphor throughout without labouring the point.

Overall the poems in “The Paper House” are thematically linked but varied in tone and voice. Karen Dennison shows a strong awareness of craft and skill at building quiet, thought-provoking poems designed to welcome and engage readers.

“The Paper House” is published by Hedgehog and available from Karen Dennison.

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