"She’s very good at leaving spaces around her words for the emotions to rise and swirl..."
Ann Pilling is a very good friend of mine. I’m making the disclosure as I do each time I review a book by someone I know.
When I read something I love, I want to tell other people about it. When I don’t like a book, I stop reading it. I’m afraid that this makes all my reviews favourable.
For a long time, Ann Pilling wrote for children. Her novel Henry’s Leg won the Guardian children’s book prize in 1986 and was made into a TV series.
She’s written books for adults too, like Considering Helen, but for the last few years, she’s been concentrating her considerable intelligence and skill on poetry.
I should say something here about my own tastes in poetry. I often need persuading that a great deal of what I’m reading isn’t prose cut up into short lines. I like scansion and rhythm and musicality. I like rhyme when it’s well done. I like (as Coleridge said) “the best possible words in the best possible order.” I like both simplicity and decoration. I love poems that move me or raise goose flesh on my arms. I enjoy recognising something I’ve experienced or felt myself. As Alexander Pope put it: “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”.
Ann Pilling has published three collections of poetry before Ways of Speech. It’s a good title for this book, because many of the poems are about communication: how impossible it sometimes is, how a mere glance can convey the absence or withdrawal of love and how the most devastating news can be conveyed in the most ordinary of words. Here is the last verse of a poem called Today’s Paper, written the day after the Grenfell Tower disaster:
Money keeps pouring in, nappies and blankets,
‘No more donations please, we have no storage,
it will all rot when it rains,’ but everyone prays
in their own way. I sit here on scorched grass
not writing about the fire.
Ann Pilling lives in North Yorkshire and its landscapes are celebrated in her work.
Wind had smoothed the drifts into long garments
carefully laid down and the horizon
was lined out with a scarf of thinnest blue.
She’s very good at leaving spaces around her words for the emotions to rise and swirl.
But you can’t practise for someone you love dying.
I’m glad I’m awake. My dreams last night
Were too filled with people crying.
She’s also terrific on domestic scenes, pets, gardens, and there’s a lovely sequence of poems about lockdown.
There’s a strong Christian sensibility in Ann Pilling’s work, alongside a sense of humour and an awareness of what’s going on in the world.
I’m going to end by quoting the whole of one poem, to give readers of Writers Review an idea of the shapeliness of these words, their music and their powerful emotional punch. Read it aloud. You’ll understand then what I mean about the unflashy but powerful impact of these verses.
After the Funeral
After the funeral we walked on the headland
In unfierce end of summer sun
where butterflies were,
where caterpillars tigered black and gold
threaded the grass, where bees
found the last sea pinks unerringly and fed.
Three heads in a line
a man, and his daughters, faces
twisted like roots against grief.
The sea was a ridged silver, the blue air
scored white with wings. Friend of our life,
if this is all there is then it is beautiful,
the earth is beautiful, if this is all there is.
Ways of Seeing is published by Shoestring Press
See more about Ann Pilling on her website.