“A Sense of Tiptoe and other articles of faith” Karen Hayes (Holland Park Press) – book review

A Sense of Tiptoe Karen Hayes

The poems in “A Sense of Tiptoe” have a central theme of faith, largely Christian, and are split into three sections, ‘Definite’, ‘Indefinite’ and ‘Infinite’. Some of the poems were written to be included in song cycles or are lyrics for a libretto and others were written as part of a residency at the late poet Charles Causley’s house, now owned by the Charles Causley Trust, where the churches in and around the village became part of the poet’s focus. The opening poem “At the Cathedral” follows a hymn-like structure of six line stanzas with lines two and four rhyming and finishing on a rhyming couplet, and tours the decoration inside the church, some for saints and royalty, others marking where people were laid to rest,

“And ordinary folk stare in relief,
Eyebrows confused, mouths open, noses chipped,
Down to the chapel floor which still vibrates.
They breathe in all its sounds with laughing lips.
And under the tiles though still within the fold
Lies someone’s little son, just six years old.”

The age of the child acts as a sobering reminder of mortality and what some of the reliefs are memorials so laughter at awkward or inept stonemasonry is misplaced. ‘Little’ in the final line feels unnecessary: the child’s age does its work.

Although “Galilee” is in the ‘Definite’ section, it uses the miracle of Jesus walking on water and is set in St Lawrence in Essex, England, “A man steps onto the waves,/ Walks across from Mersea to Saint Lawrence,/ Finger blessing the throng of revellers/ Spilling their beer at the pub”

Among the witnesses,

“There’s not a clink of money at the bar.
A woman near the slip way, in red bikini,
Lowered to her knees,/Stage whispers to her husband
Gawd almighty! And you thought that only you
Could walk on water.”

The sight inspires enough reverence for people to stop buying, engaging in capitalism, and look. The woman’s bikini is, a colour designed to attract sexual attention. She draws her husband’s attention to a miracle implying that his demands for attention are of false worship, that he is in effect a false idol.

In the second section, ‘Indefinite’, “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” is inspired by Caravaggio’s painting of the same title,

“She is wearing a mourning black,
A uniform, waitress.
Or execution black. A widow,
Black widow black.

And is she giving or is she receiving that platter?
A trophy for her mantlepiece. And is she properly flattered
By the assiduous speed with which her whim is granted?
She averts her face from his
Dear face, shorn in mid-prayer,
In righteous speech,
In righteous rejection and indifference.
His head will never turn to watch her dance.”

The references to “black” are laboured. Caravaggio’s painting is dark and crowded. Salome looks away from the platter with St John’s head on it. His expression is one of suffering. The platter is clean of blood. According to the story, Salome, a dancer, requested the head of St John the Baptist. Here doubt is cast on whether she understood what she was asking for. He can only be indifferent to her suffering. The painting is seen as a warning: be careful what you wish for.

A later poem in the same section, “The Twelve”, focuses on a jury deliberating whether the accused is guilty,

“Could we have also fallen so far beneath
The measure of what can be forgiven?
Here we sit, twelve strangers
Trying to understand
The depths of other peoples’ hearts,
While barely afloat in the shallows of our own.”

The jury are tasked with finding guilt or innocence based on the evidence presented in court. However, the jury are also human and respond emotionally as well as logically. The discussion widens to intent and whether they are fit to make such a judgement. How many of them can say they wouldn’t have done the same if caught in the circumstances of the crime? The crime is a sexual assault with no witnesses, just forensic evidence that proves sex took place but cannot prove whether consent was given. Eleven of the jury have reached a decision but one is still asking questions. What the verdict is, readers are left to guess.

The third section, ‘Infinite’, marks time and speculates. In “The Women Who Shaped the Church” in this case, St Materiana’s Church at Tintagel in Cornwall, the poem’s speaker asks,

“And I wonder what stopped them
Throwing in the towel.
Visions and dreams, moments of clarity,
A wink to posterity or stubborn faith alone?”

Were they building the church from a sense of duty to their community and faith or because it would stand long after they had passed away as a monument to themselves, an image of immortality? Ultimately, though, does it matter? The church stands as a testament to their faith, their resolve to make it happen. A similar theme is picked up in “Momentarily”

“Some moments are as dense as forests,
Overhung, with the premature sense of future recall,
Drops of water cast like runes, revealing all
And trapped on the skin of a leaf.
Others, disperse and scatter; time at play,
Perfectly unmemorable, after the fact,
And already pouring away.

This is how life passes,
The ever-present motor of what if,
Emptied, like a second cataract over a cliff.
And we cannot preserve
A single second, other than through a surge
Of purpose within the mechanics of our senses,
However acute the urge.”

It surmises that we can’t necessarily remember moments we do want to hang on to without conscious effort and the mindfulness of being present and fully alert in that particular moment. So, moments that we don’t recognise the significance of until afterwards, become difficult to recall without some sensory input: a smell, a taste, a visual prompt.

Overall “A Sense of Tiptoe” is firmly routed in faith as a means of exploring our place in the world, what motivates humans to act and create. Whether creation is in building monuments for communities, a painting that casts a new light on a familiar story or recording a snapshot of time in a journal or poem. Faith becomes a prism through which to understand others and their motives for action from a position of compassion. Through this prism, Karen Hayes reaches out to communicate ideas and gives readers space for their thoughts.

“A Sense of Tiptoe” is available from Holland Park Press.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch

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