Stephanie Norgate’s 'The Conversation' reviewed
Continuing the conversation
What a treat to curl up on the sofa on an autumn afternoon to enjoy The Conversation by Stephanie Norgate. This is a magical book of poetry to absorb, inspire and delight. Stephanie’s third collection includes a sequence of poems written in memory of her close friend, the wonderful author Helen Dunmore, who was one of the first poets to be published by Bloodaxe and to whom The Conversation is dedicated.
Norgate’s first collection Hidden River (2008) was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and Forward Prize for Best First Collection. The Blue Den followed in 2012. Her verse is often praised for its form, lyricism, sensitivity, musicality, and imagery. The Conversation sees Norgate on top form.
I enjoyed the poignancy and celebration of a friendship between two female poets, aptly portrayed through poetic imagery in ‘Walking the Path Again’. As in many long and close friendships, gaps, silences, and even the simple rhythm of walking together, are deemed as important as what is said:
I can’t recall now what it was we said
Maybe the step by step was all,
Maybe rhyme can fill no gap, the gap is all.
The particular bond between the two writers is lovingly and touchingly captured to create a moving portrait of a friendship shaped by a shared love and respect for language and form:
And, as your friend,
I won’t quote your words, for they are yours
not mine, a haiku flaring from the page,
a glint, a gleam, a generosity.
Friendship, grief, and language
Towards the end of the collection, The Conversation extends the link between female friendship, speech and language, as the poet grieves for her friend and attempts to find a novel and different way to describe an altered world in which someone so important is now missing:
Now our words need a new measure of time,
syllables for seconds, sonnets for minutes,
epics for hours …
… and yet the city streets are now lit by memories and, in lines that carry Tennysonian echoes, the hills personified since this great shift between what has gone and what is now:
unless, dear friend, I name our talk for you,
a light that shimmers along city streets
and out along the lanes of great souled hills.
Memory, the past, and nature
Memory and the past are explored through nature and walking through both urban and rural landscapes as the poet perhaps tries to come to terms with a new present, a task that again recalls Tennyson's 'In Memoriam A.H.H.'. ‘Ask the Heathland’ evokes a harsh, cold winter scene. Nature is ‘frozen’, ‘broken’, ‘fallen’ (‘in what measure shall I walk my grief?’), yet there is beauty and hope in the ‘all sun, blue sky’, and ultimately the cycle of life continues with bird, insect and floral activity:
a robin names its territory from the high birch
the gorse beckons a bumble bee
to rest on golden lips
in what measure can I compose my grief?
In a continuation of themes of loss and absence, there is a nod to the pandemic, enforced lockdown and further estrangement. ‘An Hour’s Walk’ compares past freedoms with new restrictions, while daily deprivations of space, social contact, and human interaction are described in devastating personal detail:
Days into lockdown, she does nothing
but look zero in the mirror’s face.
Walking is once again an important motif; a way of making sense, passing time, stimulating memories and thought, and connecting the past with the present:
One hour allowed in the silent street.
Step after step, and the old names come back.
Nature and the city
The relationship between nature and the city are explored in some depth by the poet. ‘February Foxes’ and ‘Wildlife Garden in the City’ are particularly evocative of the tension between city life and the natural world:
and the foxes fade
to a dream of need, of the hunger
that nuzzles at tarmac, a kind of blessing.
In ‘Wildlife Garden in the City’ we are asked to consider:
the air’s vibrato
when a bird’s churr
rises above the machine’s whirr?
Humour, loss, and pathos
Whilst grief, loss, and absence are important themes in this collection, humour exists amongst the pathos. ‘Jane Austen’s Visitor’ plays with language beautifully to convey the extraordinary juxtaposed with the everyday:
Bread. A slice of ham. All that comes:
A toothless flip-flap of lips, a dying fish.
An atmospheric and original poem, the rich, interwoven images of creativity are quite in keeping with the historical period of this solitary lady writer:
Her pen drifts over small inky sheets
She scissors out islands of script.
Finally, we are taken right back down to earth with ‘apple pie in the kitchen’ and ‘I can’t write what I don’t know’ in a wonderfully subdued ending.
To conclude, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection of insightful and personal poems and each one earns its place in a varied whole. The Conversation evokes a stream of ideas and a dialogue which lingers long after the first reading and commands many revisits. It is both a tender tribute to a dear and departed friend and fellow writer and a significant and wide-ranging collection.
Tina MacNaughton was born and brought up in Portsmouth, a city that means a great deal to her. She now divides her time between Crowthorne, Berkshire, where she works as an acupuncturist, and her seaside flat in Southsea, where she walks, goes to the beach, and writes poetry. She belongs to the Portsmouth Writer’s Hub and The Wagtails Open Mic Group based in Chichester. Her frank poems about menopause and women’s issues have resonated with many readers. A fine collection of Tina’s poetry 'On the Shoulders of Lions' was published by The Choir Press in July 2021.