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vii. Acumen, May 2022

A Field Guide To Wedding Guests by Helen Reid. Poet’s House Pamphlets. 28 pp.; £7.


In recent years it has been good, for both poet and reader, to see the resurgence of the pamphlet as a means of bringing poetry to the public. Roughly a quarter of the books Acumen receives for review are pamphlets. They are sometimes called chapbooks - small books “hawked by chapmen” (OED), or “chaps”, rather inappropriate for offerings of poetry. I prefer pamphlet, a word derived from pamphilet, a popular form of the 12th century Latin Pamphilus, a love poem. Few modern pamphlets contain love poems, but they do deliver treats we would otherwise miss out on: first public utterances of fledgeling poets; sequences unencumbered by surrounding lesser poems; small helpings of work
from established poets in between main courses. There are examples of each of these in
the pamphlets I have chosen to comment on here.

Most of us would recognise at least some of the characters described in Helen Reid’s debut pamphlet, A Field Guide to Wedding Guests. They range from the endearingly innocent ‘Sullen Infanta’ (“a tiny girl [...] in the flurry of shuffling on the church steps”), through such dramatis personae as ‘The Extra’ (“who had been hurriedly ushered from the dance / [and] has re-emerged to loom tragically by the buffet”) and ‘The Great Aunt’ (“on legs like
/ Twiglets in court shoes”) , to the ravenous ‘Distant Cousin’ (“[wiping] lipstick off her canines”) and the obnoxious ‘Mr Tongue’ (“someone’s uncle in the disco dance, working the room”). The book’s blurb tells us the poet “enjoys the absurd in the stuff of ordinary life”. Reading Helen Reid puts me in mind of the conversations one has with one’s other half when driving home from a function, remarking how awful certain guests were, gleefully elaborating on their worst points, then howling with laughter about them. Skilfully chosen, spot-on observations of the more absurd aspects of the human character can be curiously entertaining.

Interspersed between the nine wedding guest poems are nine other poems displaying a similar wit and precision, but rather more highly wrought, including three sonnets, a villanelle, a prose poem, and a delightful sequence of seven haikus entitled ‘The Suburban Ornithologist’. Here is the haiku ‘Outlands Road’: “Pigeons are mating / on the TV aerial / during peak viewing.” Helen Reid can tell a good story, setting the scene with well-chosen imagery. In the intriguing ‘Press this Shell to your Ear’, the tang of the sea heightens the allure of its brief narrative. The poem describes a relationship between “I” (a mermaid?) and “my silkie boy” (a seal-like creature). Driven south from “a northern winter shore”:
“All the way he kept up such a sea pup keening, / I had to toss a mermaid’s purse for him
to chew, / clamp a cowrie to his ear to make him sleep. / I dug a pond deep in my orchard where each pink dawn / he stripped down to his oily grey hide, / lay mournful in his landlocked pit of mud.” The poem ends with the predictable separation: “I woke up in a sweet dry bed and found the cowrie / on his pillow, so that now and then, on a stormy night, / or a spring tide, I still can share his distant rushing joy.”


I hope we see more of Helen Reid’s entertaining poems.

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