‘You’re not alone: Horatio hates revision, too’: Common Ground reviewed

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Common Ground by D A Prince

£12.00, HappenStance Press

At first glance, D A Prince’s Common Ground is unassuming and approachable; a collection for a quick reader. With time, it reveals itself as something deeper; accessible, but also infinitely perceptive. Throughout Common Ground, Prince looks for a return to common, shared places: a home (“snug as a door frame / the place that always welcomed you back”), a language and a self. In doing so, she combines her artistically condensed narratives with a truly relatable human experience of memory.

Prince is a native of Leicestershire, with a degree in English Literature from Reading University and a career around librarianship and education. But she is also a reviewer and a poet of varied range and form, frequently published in The New Statesman and The Spectator. Common Ground is her second full-length collection and – in between lines of shrewd, densely collected thought – it shows that Prince has a wealth of imagination and a meditative poetic hand.

There is something unmistakably real about her poetry. Her lines reverberate in our daily grind, as in What’s My Line?; “Black and white Sunday evenings, the week ahead / laid out in its grid”. Like her persona in Advanced Level, Prince has “pulled the poem up to date, made Keats / suddenly streetwise.” There is a strong hint at her previous engagements with education and literature as a whole, as she moulds the plot of Hamlet into a piece spoken by Horatio, commenting on his unequal footing in the play: “I – the dutiful / and sober pal, the philosophic friend – dissolve… You won’t remember me.” She plays on the student’s eternal struggle of assembling and regurgitating information, likening it to love. It is “unconditional”, because rarely do we have the choice to say no – if we do, society stigmatizes our decision – a love “that in June explodes into exams – / Discuss with reference to the text”.

The collection is fluent and witty (there’s even a cat poem), but there is a strain of hurt and regret as well. In Memo to Self, Prince suggests speech impediments are “wallpaper to your teeth”, before meditating on the vicious ways in which society stifles them: “force-feed…with memory till you’re speechless, / leave you choked.” Words left unsaid are a recurring feature too: sat across from her lover after an argument, the speaker of This Morning struggles to find the words to say over “toughened toast” and the “milk’s sour rim”, with the “radio competing for attention”. The title poem, a small, mostly blank verse piece on the reunion of old friends, calls upon regret and nostalgia – a longing for youth: “Too old for change, we let / children define us”. “Travels, success, / their proud fertility” are all washed away in the end by the insistent and pensive “evening rain”. These ‘recollection poems’ make up a large portion of the book; unfortunately, some readers under 25 may be put off by a collection that returns to often the troubles of middle-age.

As a reviewer, Prince gives us a helpful manifesto on verse in The Good Poems:

You can’t tell where they start.

That first line with its sense of direction

is just to fool you. It all began

long before this, and ends

long after this book is closed,

somewhere else, and sometimes

in another country.

The description is applicable to Prince’s own writing. Her poems have a smooth sense of direction, with many ending in quiet reflections on reminiscence and the self. Elsewhere, her well-crafted villanelles and sestinas are harder to categorise, raising many more questions than can be answered within the space of their tightly-knit form.

Prince’s shorter poems offer a reflection of the volume as a whole. Sea Interlude is one such piece. A neatly woven comment on fading love, and perhaps fading life itself, it begins amidst an untroubled sea, “flat from shore to sky” and “tight as a line of fine knitting”. Then, abruptly, the speaker’s “Would you ever write that?” is thrown forth to a “puzzled” listener (perhaps her partner?) who can only respond with “What?”. Prince ties her real fears of mortality and loss of love to the embellished lyrical setting of the calm and quiet sea, giving the reader, and herself, a peaceful space for reflection. That said, I have quite a few reservations about her understated style. Many poems, Sea Interlude, seem unfinished and in need of a conclusive ending. Brevity is not the same as concision; too often in her poetry she decides the point has been put across after just two stanzas, and so the reader is left hanging on an unfinished thought.

Her real charm lies in her technical skill, her ability to construct constrained, minimalistic poetry and at the same time let it yield to unbridled emotion. Common Ground revolves around loss, nostalgia and sonatas for the daily grind, attended to by an overarching desire not to give up hope and to keep searching for a common purpose. Despite her tendency to leave slightly too much unsaid, the questions posed by this collection will haunt you long after the book is closed.

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