Michael Tolkien

Nearly the Happy Hour  (HappenStance)

(Publ in Ambit 194, Autumn 2008)


Conversationally confiding in a variety of formal structures, D.A. Prince celebrates the vital and vibrant without denying the contradictions and puzzles in all experience and behaviour. She achieves this in the modest dress of childhood recollections, sharp snapshot pieces that leave room for our own memories and perceptions, indirect comments on false assumptions and the deceits of time and space, observations of domestic possessions and wild birds. There’s even a witty fantasy about a swan cult that implies how institutionalised manias forget simple origins. Formative beginnings emerge through tangible objects (a pig-killing knife, a stubborn fireplace, instruction manuals), family myths (Solomon Grundy, the omnipresent bogeyman), believable people with their talents and limits. (Sharing in her father’s gift for water divining gives rise to an earthy, moving poem.) You sense how her early experience contributed to a creative, ‘non-literal’ outlook, but also formed constraints to be jettisoned. Shifts in subject matter imply movement towards more comprehensive views.

In School Photograph: 1957 ‘…they haven’t invented/excuses, alibis, the cop-out clauses for doing well,/reasons for Valium, cloaks of diagnosis./ so busy being children they don’t know/ what children stretch into, how much or how long./ Shining, clenched into happy-ever-after,/ here’s how they sit before it all goes wrong.’ Marriage Bed almost complements this. A woman stitches images of her fiancé’s love letters across ‘the honeymoon cotton of a double quilt’. In a metaphorical tour de force the authentically meticulous, often painful process of sewing suggests the trials of devotion. (‘She soaks her hands’ meat in the salt/of commitment, ignoring the blood’)

Strong concluding poems hint at mortality in ways that hover perplexingly between humour and pathos. The sequence of topics is indicative. She’s car-bound in a blizzard. A man looks up from computing, and with lateral perception sees his wife becoming her mother. Vapour trails lead to reflections on how little certainty was provided by geometry or any set of rules. A long-kept going-away dress longs for release (but to where?) A dying walker thinks he’s stalking away over old haunts. Finally, imagine yourself as a ghost. Feel your lack of restraint and your irrelevance.  ‘All the freedom you ever wanted’ is the book’s concluding line. But doesn’t this remind us that we’re meant to live in a demandingly intractable world? That double-edged gift is at the heart of this outstanding first full collection.