The Five Petals of Elderflower: Angela Topping, Red Squirrel Press
Firstly, let’s look at that title. I can imagine some reviewers (usually, let’s face it, male ones) thinking: “Oh dear, it’s all going to be about nice domestic subjects, or be terribly nice and comfy.” And it’s true that these poems are not all “edgy” and “cutting-edge” the way some reviewers (male ones again) would like poetry to be all the time. But this is to read Angela Topping’s poetry through a very particular set of largely urban, even metropolitan, biases: and to miss the deeper currents of these poems, as much to do with memory and loss as to do with any kind of comfortable view of the world. Not everybody lives in fast-paced city streets, and why shouldn’t poetry celebrate the ordinary life of ordinary people anyway?
Angela Topping, at her best, writes poems that move in a quietly insistent way, using precise images to delineate a memory, a situation or a character, as in ‘Agnes’:
Midwood Street, terraces not fit for humans,
is where she’s always lived. It’s twenty years
since she last climbed the stairs.
Layers of dust stifle outdated ornaments.
Each sloughed-off cell deepens the pail.
Gas lamps are chandeliered with webs.
There is darkness in her poems, though they never become overwhelmed by it. Even a seemingly innocent poem about inviting someone for breakfast is haunted by thoughts of death and friends and family now gone; but none of it is morbid. There is humour, too: ‘Icthyolatry’ is a poem about a man who falls in love with a fish:
He loved the calico skin of the koi,
her scarlet daubs. The tail flexed
like a ballerina’s legs. She lifted
her sucking mouth from the water.
Each night he visited. His wife’s
bullish snores polluted his dreams.
The fish made no demands, she came
clean as pearl in pellucid silence.
This piscine fantasy doesn’t make me laugh out loud, but it does make me smile; and Angela Topping’s effects are all like that. When they work best, they work quietly and calmly; there is nothing flashy or overdramatic about these poems. Yet under the surface, these poems of nature and memory seethe with recalled emotions and a love for the ordinary pleasures of life and language.