The Visitations: Kathryn Simmonds, Seren
Second collections can be difficult, especially if a poet’s first collection is published to wide acclaim, garnering praise and prizes, as was the case with Kathryn Simmonds’ Forward prize-winning debut, Sunday at the Skin Laundrette, in 2008. In The Visitations Simmonds has chosen to continue down the path of her first collection - a gentle and at times quirky examination of faith, motherhood and how to live in these times. The quietly humorous voice of these poems disguises their deep reflections on the grief, joy and disappointment of everyday life.
Simmonds, who was born in Hertfordshire in 1972, lives in London and is a writer, editor and teacher. As well as poetry she has also written drama and short stories for BBC Radio 4.
Rather unusually for a contemporary poet, she is concerned with faith, albeit a faith that repeatedly refuses the strictures of organised worship, reflecting perhaps modern attitudes towards attending church. The first poem in the collection, ‘ Sunday Morning’, proclaims the poet’s rejection of prayer while retaining a deep belief in the deity who will “find me, if he chooses / he’ll lift me like a woolly two-year-old, / secure me to the fold”. The title poem, ‘The Visitations’, suggests that God is to be found everywhere, in the quotidian and the sublime: “Sometimes he comes as sunlight - / Watch him tick across the wall.”
This concern with faith is bound up with a wider interest in how to react to the modern world. In perhaps the strongest poem in the collection, ‘Apocryphal’, Simmonds captures with unnerving accuracy our ambivalence about what seems to be unavoidable catastrophe:
The end of time, ah yes, it slips the mind,
there’s only so much wisdom can be flung at it. Only so many quips.
Here it comes
in its ten-league boots
trampling all over our honorary degrees.
Simmonds chillingly demonstrates how the intricacies of 21st century life both obscure our view of impending doom and protect us from thinking about it. The difficulties of living are also key to the book’s central section, 20 short poems called ‘Life Coach Variations’, which are a wry look at the irony of anyone thinking they have life licked: the life coach himself struggles on, not really knowing how to manage his own life.
In their quiet way these poems are well-peopled, but the characters are anonymous: the child, partner, mother, brother slip into and out of the lines, reflecting an elegiac grief for the swiftness of time and loss. In ‘Elegy for the Living’ Simmonds imagines the inevitable loss of one partner to another: “and it’ll be / as if I dreamed you, dear” but quickly pushes away the thought: “Not now. Not yet”. The interplay between the dark side of life and a light humorous touch characterises this collection, which is leavened with witty poems about class warfare and the gentle joys of new motherhood.
The poems reject traditional forms, except for a couple of loose villanelles, and employ a variety of structures, including couplets, tercets and blocks of text. In several poems the words are staggered across the page in a very open format, although sometimes it is hard to see what this adds to the work. In the - excellent – poem, ‘The Hem’, for example, some phrases might be more powerful without tab spaces in front of them. Simmonds has a talent for phrasing, as in ‘The Life Coach Peels a Boiled Egg’ : “Life is easier with technique” or in ‘Conversation with a Lime Tree’: “the amalgam of days/and how to live them”. Unusual characters appear throughout the book, from a lime tree to Mr and Mrs Daydream and what could be a patient with locked-in syndrome.
Simmonds is also the author of short stories and dramas and the poems in The Visitations are often stories stored in a small form. The Poetry Archive reports Simmonds as saying: “I am attracted to the short story because, like a poem, it can’t tell you everything and doesn’t seek to. Like a poem the short story taps you on the shoulder and then leaves.”
A few of these poems do tell you too much, laying the meaning out for the reader. This occurs in ‘In Service’, a poem about new motherhood, where the poem ends “Your cry again. And so the work / of love is never done; / I gather up my skirts and run.2 The poem is neatly summed up at the end. This is accessible, entertaining poetry, in the mode of Simon Armitage, but is no less valuable for that. Simmonds’ energy and humour carry the reader through some dark places.