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Karen Dennison reviews Andy Armitage’s Letters to a First Love from the Future

aaaaaaLetters to a first love from the future by Andy Armitage charts the birth, life, death and aftermath of this first relationship that begins at school and is a heartfelt, honest and moving memorial of words.

The speaker’s love is portrayed as a form of religious worship which is betrayed by doubt and throughout the poems there is a foreshadowing of the relationship’s end and its psychological wounds.

The collection begins with Snapshot, a blurred image of which is also included before the contents page, where the couple are in the playground “heads leant together in idiot hope”. The speaker describes his hands at his sides “like the hands of a stopped clock”. Here is a longing to stop time and preserve this moment, not just its image.

The next poem, Sally, begins “on the last day I didn’t love you” and takes us to a specific moment of a specific day when love struck and shows a clear demarcation between two eras, a point of complete and utter change to his world.

In Moonstruck

“My mind had caught hold the string
of your rising moon,
buoyed me to such heights,
letting go was suddenly unthinkable.

And so, drunk with sleeplessness,
I hung about the stars
admiring your wonderful
alignments.”

Among school children recalls a “year of hours” of trying to get her attention by things like acting up in class until he finally gets up the courage to speak to her. Poems that follow cement the relationship with stolen kisses and illicit meetings but also how he “snares” her with laughter and acts the clown to entertain her. Et in Arcadia ego brings his future eye to the past, foretelling their parting with references to death –

“We know nothing of years or distance.
Your eyes are brimming with dead stars.

Do not let go my hand just yet.”

In Cross Gates Station, where she lives is “the holy place where I’d alight each school night” and there is allusion to the symbolism of crucifixion. In The Playing Fields images of hidden death and wounds begin to become stronger, juxtaposed against his enduring love –

“………………………… I held you
tight as a bud holds its flower
and tried to staunch the wound of myself
as you unfurled in my hands.”

And

“……………………There are broken wings
and little skulls under the thickening hedgerows
but to me it is as though nothing has ever wintered.”

The collection moves to the couple together in his first bedsit and there is a kind of desperation to hold onto her which becomes claustrophobic – “But you could not bloom/ in the stony ground of my petty/ ambitions.”

The wound alludes to Thomas the Doubter who needed to touch Christ’s wounds to believe in his resurrection. In this poem the speaker reflects how his doubt was part of what seeded the impending split, how he needs her physical presence to believe she is with him –

“I just couldn’t believe you’d come back
until I’d touched the wound under your ribs.”

In the next phase of the relationship she leaves for university and there’s the Dear John ending followed by trying to let go and start a new life. Hoarder begins

“It’s difficult knowing where to start,
clearing a space to live in
among the clutter of the heart,..”

A longitude of longing is a particularly moving and beautiful poem underpinned by a strong metaphor. In Eurydice, with reference to the Greek myth, it’s as if in looking back on the past he is losing her all over again – “so let these songs stand in for what I lack/ because I could not but look back.”

At the end, Eucharist returns to love as a form of bodily worship – ”But know this – I have been faithful/ as a widower in my old religion,// keeping your candle alight.”

This is a universal story of love that most people will relate to and yet of course intensely personal in a beautifully honest and very approachable way that draws the reader in and elicits empathy and understanding. It’s also a story that’s been told many times but it’s never tired in this author’s hands and the images are clear, fresh and poignant with a particularly effective use of religious, memento mori and mythological imagery/references which bring extra layers of depth and symbolism. Highly recommended.

.

Karen Dennison won the Indigo Dreams Collection Competition in 2011 resulting in the publication in 2012 of her first collection Counting Rain. Her second collection, The Paper House, will be published by Hedgehog Poetry Press in Spring 2019. Karen is editor and publisher of the pamphlets Book of Sand and Blueshift (longlisted for the Saboteur Awards 2016). As an artist, she collaborated with poet Abegail Morley on her pamphlet The Memory of Water – her photoshopped photographs feature on the cover and inside. Karen is co-editor of Against the Grain Poetry Press. Her website is https://kdennison.wordpress.com/

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