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Out of the Ordinary: Heather Cook, Frosted Fire

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The poems in Heather Cook’s debut pamphlet may deal with apparently ‘ordinary’ subjects, but they are certainly not run of the mill. I first read these poems a year ago, when I provided one of the endorsements for the back cover of the pamphlet. It is a delight to revisit them a year on, tinged with a certain guilt that I missed some of their hidden depths first time around.

‘Apples in a wheelbarrow’, for instance, paints a seemingly idyllic scene of a husband and wife gathering fruit in the autumn of their years, but has a surprising conclusion that reveals the domestic tension at the heart of the relationship.

‘Alone in a Travelodge’ is about exactly that, as well as being a sonnet that follows its own rules. The poet revels “in these stolen hours alone”, despite minor annoyances (“there are too many raspberry teabags left, / furniture is being thrown about next door”). The number of times that Cook uses the sonnet form to capture a moment (‘A carer’s prayer’ and ‘Jamais vu’ are other good examples) made me think I should try this more often myself.

Cook is acutely perceptive about the contradictions of caring (‘The girls who come at seven’) and the indignities and indifference that can be suffered (‘The outing’, ‘The blue cardigan’). Elsewhere she makes deft sense of the awkwardness of everyday life: a severed friendship (‘A messy ending’); rain damaging a freshly-papered wall (‘Weeping garlands’); or the frustration of trying to gain the attention of medical staff while visiting a beloved parent (‘A moment’).   

She quotes Larkin’s words about spring – ‘The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost said’ – and concludes:


     How soon we grow impatient

     for now to be the past,

     for buds to birth their leaves,

     for leaves to turn in autumn,

     always surprised it seems

     by the long slow certainty of winter.

                                          (‘Larkin’s leaves’)


She has been a prison visitor – in her typically self-deprecating words, “a middle-aged do-gooder” (‘Carols in the prison’) – and captures an unexpected moment of lyricism in the words of a prisoner during an art class:


      “What colours will your roses be?” I ask.

      “Yellow,” he says, “the colour of summer.

      With red-streaked buds,

      like jam smeared on a butter knife.”

                                              (‘Bread roses’)


‘The holiday show’ has a Betjemanesque wistfulness in its sketch of the “sad, pale girl on the cruise-liner stall”, and its pleasing rhymes such as “Tunisia” with “prettier”, and “choosy” and “Jacuzzi”.

Heather Cook is also very much a poet of ageing, as in ‘Lucien Freud’s woman’:


     I see the woman ageing,

     her painted muscles wasting,

     her skin suspended from a cage of bones.

     She will hide from the mirror

     to avoid her mother’s ghost.


Her final poem, ‘Grayson Perry’, celebrates the ordinary with its last two lines: “Long may the ordinary things be with us / to keep us sane in troubled times.” But this underplays the effectiveness of this collection.

The tone of these poems is unassuming, but should not be underestimated. Some of them in particular will be recognised by carers, and give comfort to them. They remind us of some more of Larkin’s words: “We should be careful / of each other, We should be kind, / While there is still time.”


Heather Cook, Out of the ordinary, Frosted fire, £9





◄ Why is the sonnet still popular?

Dave Morgan at Write Out Loud Woking on Zoom tonight ►

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