Alan Price reviews ‘The Space Between Us’ by Neil Elder

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The poetry of Neil Elder has a compelling domestic surface. By surface I don’t mean superficial. By domestic I don’t mean limited. What he makes of family incidents, whether joyfully tender or horribly upsetting is very distinctive. It’s very difficult to write about being a father in a family, caught at home, on holiday or observing your children. Such subject matter can threaten sentimentality. But Elder is too shrewd and witty a poet to invite that criticism. Just take an apparently simple and direct poem like “Art Appreciation.”

 

Somebody’s rule of inversion;

appreciation is proportional

to what is left.

Crookedly the vase leans in all its orange splendour.

I see you shake your head in disbelief

repeating Fabulous with wonder.

 

The epiphany lies in the repeat of the word Fabulous. It begins with the term as

a mother’s “amazement that sticks in the mind.” Her reaction to the vase is observed

as a “disproportionate delight” that “might be the start of a decline.” Elder makes you hear the mother’s voice. It’s distinct, clear, tense with possible judgement, and then

loving approval. Fabulous was a very 1960/70’s word. Its usage evokes a parent of that generation and her values.

 

There are many examples of a quiet tenderness in The Space Between Us. A further mother poem, “What we Could Not Give” has the poignant lines,

 

It wasn’t possible to find a wall

Large enough to mount a mirror that could

Reflect the love that you have shown.

 

Elder’s insights and remembrances are often shot through with a very funny observation of things. There’s a skillful balance between the absurd and the deadly serious that draws you comfortably into his world and then shocks. “Not One of Us” is ostensibly a poem about how a gorilla is lovingly accepted into the family domain until they discover it has a flaw.

 

Then one day I opened the front door

To find ten billion tiny flies

had hatched from underneath Loretta’s ear;

Fur rippling and the air a shivering cloud of nightmare.

 

And for this diseased ear, the gorilla is destroyed.

 

…we struck a match and cursed

her back where she belonged.

 

A family’s abandonment of a wild beast makes for a bigger statement about intolerance, normality and evolution

 

we’d think of Attenborough and smile

 

Occasionally the compassion of Neil Elder can prove to be a shortcoming. He can admirably engage us in the human scene, with all its frailties, yet technically his language sometimes fails him. Elder strives to say something profound but fails to arrive at a philosophical conclusion. It wasn’t because I wanted some rhetorical summing up but a deeper searching. Poems like “Your Poem” and “Hopeful” are slight truisms. However there is so much honest, direct, and thoughtfulness in The Space Between Us which indicates that Elder will get better in the books to come.

 

Back to the collection I hold in my hands. I have nothing but praise for “Not One Of Us” and such companion dark poems as “Testimony”, the sharply written “Horse Drawn” and the semi-grotesque “Being Dinner.”

 

“Being Dinner” reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with the eating of food

(Especially his late great film Frenzy). And the collection also has a poem about the shower scene in Psycho coupled with Scorcese’s Raging Bull. Yet “Being Dinner” is for me the more effective Hitchcockian / Elder experience. It opens surprisingly, and madly, from the food’s point of view!

 

Flat on the kitchen counter;

to your left, each night,

a figure in chef’s whites sharpening a knife.

You suspected this ending.

 

I loved these gleefully black comic lines.

 

Perhaps the poem in the collection that moved me most was the very direct, “What We Could Not Give You.” Yet The Space Between Us has love, other than mother-love, to give us. These are caring, insightful and generous poems. And any reader of this book will return to its power.

 

 

Order your copy of The Space Between Us by Neil Elder from Cinnamon press here

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