TIME spent with Pam Zinnemann-Hope’s new collection, Foothold, is time well spent. At first sight domestic and personal, these tender and unshowy poems unfold gently and at leisure to reveal the poet’s deep affection for the landscape and culture of West Dorset (Hardy, Eggardon Hill, Lyme Bay), and for her “long lived love”, composer husband, Peter.
Fittingly, perhaps, it is a collection that ripples with musical references. Everything, it seems, has its own song, its particular sound. We become attuned to a world in which “a wren’s call tsipps, like a tiny silver axe”, “you groan like the strained hinges of the door”, “snowdrops chant” – music and nature fusing when
an arpeggio descends like a small waterfall
(Listening to Liszt)
or when it becomes apparent
…how Beethoven’s soul
has entered the lark, backwards;
how it’s speeded up.
(The Musicologist And The Birdwatcher)
Music, birdsong, the sounds of rain and rivers, are a constant counterpoint to the everyday events and relationships, the observations of the turning world, that are the raw material of these poems. As a consequence their nuances are more vivid, they resonate with recognisable truth.
Sounds appear to map the contours of life, help us locate ourselves emotionally, like the pianist Alfred Brendel:
…a man who, blindfold,
could find his way through the landscape
by the sounds of the rain on its surfaces.
(When Brendel Appears at Plush)
And this is a life in which the natural world frequently occupies the foreground. Swallows, bees, snowdrops, birch trees abound. The shifts and turns of the seasons accompany, even prefigure, the small movements of the heart: the arrival of a grandchild, stargazing, a visit to the doctor.
Nature is also the much-desired source of “magical thinking…a light to keep / in the pocket” (Perseids), so that in Crab Apple the tree becomes “a brief god, / waving to us, with a blackbird on his shoulder”, and, in Central Heating, even the plumber has “an incantation / for every room he plumbed”.
The progress of life is, like the hawthorn, shaped by the wind. And yet the connection is fragile, there is vulnerability too:
the trees shake a little
and the river roars,
to loosen our foothold
The process of ageing, of observing the passage of a mature and loving relationship is conveyed in unflinching yet tender detail and a certain understandable wistfulness, for
autumn has shifted the light
measured in creases of flesh.
(You’re Almost Facing Me)
Though the realities of frailty and mortality are brought to mind with touching candour, there’s nonetheless a quiet fortitude derived from the constant presence of nature:
standing up to weather became a way of life.
There is dancing, too, and in December’s Reckoning a “need to sing out / the wasting year…”, to let
the first notes hold us,
The familiar features of the West Dorset landscape and its history – Lulworth, Eggardon, the Jurassic Coast, Hardy’s Cottage – are both backdrop and armature to this collection and acknowledged with the same affection as husband and grandchild. Mary Anning’s voice is evoked, and the sound of Thomas Hardy’s, whose In a Museum provides an apt entrée to the collection.
There’s nothing flashy about these poems.Their rhythms are natural, unconstrained by formal conventions, conversational, as befits the often intimate tone:
the tenderest of dances
a clustering of notes…
(3 Liszt Études)
Set within the “known geography of hereabouts”, Foothold presents a reassuring affirmation of the pastoral and the way elements of nature continue to suffuse, govern and reflect the patterns of human life and relationships.
Stephen Boyce lives in Dorset and is the author of two poetry collections, Desire Lines (Arrowhead 2010) and The Sisyphus Dog (Worple 2014), as well as the pamphlets In the Northland (TegArt 2011) and Something Persists (TegArt 2014). He is a founding trustee of Winchester Poetry Festival. www.stephenboycepoetry.com