“To Nora, a Singer of Sad Songs” follows a love between an Englishman and an American singer, who are separated when she is forced to return to America. From the poems there’s no time scale given so readers don’t know how long the relationship is or when during the relationship the separation occurred. The first poem, “My Love is in America” starts,
“I cannot hold you, nor yet kiss you,
yet with your song
you have rendered my heart
incapable of hiding in the loneliness of the moon.”
“My love, I cannot live without you,
it would be Death
and Death is over there
beyond the joy of song, beyond the sightless stars.”
The long vowels and assonance slow the rhythm and indicate the lament, setting the scene for poems of loss brought about by separation. Nora faced a lifelong battle with depression, as “Blue November” suggests “Blue was her dream, blue, always her colour”. Ironically she gives life to others, the first part of the sequence “In Time’s Wake”, “Sunlight”, declares, “I was dead before you became my lover, then I learned how to breathe.”
The sense of separation and longing is further captured in the title poem,
“In what song now
does your voice whisper in such grief –
songs about betrayal, songs about loss,
as if the words could capture
a single weary tear, a single moment of your defiance?
Night falls through shared tenderness,
the mourning doves take flight,
but for you and I there will be no sad flight, no invocations,
only this: winter will not make an end of us,
not tomorrow or today.”
It’s not without hope though, the singer’s “single moment of defiance” and the narrator’s “winter will not make an end of us” both suggest separation is temporary, its season will end. The vocabulary echoes the songs Nora could be singing: low-key vocals, melancholy strings and frequent mentions of crying, chances missed and loss. A later poem, “Concerto de Aranjuez,” picks up this theme too and ends,
“How we know, resolution does not come
in your sad songs
upon the guitar,
but in the cadenced spirit of heaven”
The narrator begins to question how long separated love can last in “Lost Note”, a prose poem,
“Once again, and not for the last time, I am as far beyond doubt as any creature in mortal danger of losing its head. Once again, I am as far beyond rest as you, as you toil through the night in danger of losing your self, your love for me.
My sweet girl, can’t you see that your sadness in the face of all the odds, is no more mournful than the scent of hyacinths left in the vase, nor the tired hands that are left to play the age-long sonatas of the dead in the face of all that living promises?”
In amongst the poems to Nora, two stick out as being in a different tone and register. One, “At the Grave of Sylvia Plath,” where, “the Heptonstall horizon narrows/ to the anguish of a girlish heart/ proclaiming the dominion of death.” But ends on the suggestion that the narrator’s love, Nora, should be in his arms, “the sacred place where you always find peace.” “Pain Eater” is a list of the world’s evils ending on the question, “What words can be said to convince a girl to keep struggling?” Within context, it’s a plea to the lover the narrator has been separated from. These two poems really belong in another collection since their presence here invites interpretation within a narrow context.
“To Nora, Singer of Sad Songs” is a lyrical look at enforced separation and whether love can survive that separation. However, I’d have liked to know more about Nora. She sings, but I don’t know who her favourite singers or what her favourite songs are. I don’t know how she sang: power ballad or jazz? She haunts this collection, but never quite solidifies into a person. I suspect Mark Murphy’s intention was to focus on and capture the sense of love lost and the collection does successfully recreate the ambiance of a melancholy song that echoes after the book has been shut.
The Saboteur Award Shortlists are now published. Please vote for the winners at the link: http://sabotagereviews.com/2019/04/15/saboteur-awards-2019-shortlists/. Without votes those shortlisted won’t progress. If you enjoy reviews on this blog, I’ve been shortlisted for Best Reviewer.