Shopping List Prayers

Lifting the Piano with One Hand, Gaia Holmes, Comma Press, £7.99
reviewed by Mark Burnhope

Gaia Holmes’ poems often remind me of the religious cliché ‘Shopping List Prayer’, thanks to her propensity for listing images like ingredients for incantations or spells. These details can add humour to poems with darker subjects, like lost love:

Your grandmother
had tins full of prayer tags
and soft Garibaldi biscuits.
She stored gossip like hymn sheets
folded into the back
of her breeze-block Bible,
kept a row of icons
above her fireplace
with garish hearts
like rotting plums…

This first poem, ‘Blessed’ – part of section one, Delft and Doulton – demonstrates Holmes’ considered use of line to control pace, rhythm, and tone (note the rhyme, ‘quite well’ / ‘burn in Hell’, book-ending the final stanza):

You said I’d done quite well,
made a good impression
but I could tell by the way
she edged her way
around my name
and how damp I was
when we said goodbye
that she thought
I’d burn in Hell.

Though Holmes peppers her poems with prayers and icons, she avoids dryly critiquing patriarchal religion, choosing instead to expose it in human relationships. In section two, Visitations, the spiritual manipulation perpetrated by a lover is further evoked in poems such as ‘Rough’, ‘The Guest’, ‘The Man Who Dripped Digitalis’ (‘He could charm the poison out of foxgloves / and used his skills to quicken my pulse. / I wondered what he fed on, frayed liturgies / and the secret dreams of women’) and ‘The Glass House’ (‘Later I will remember / the languid names of plants / that kill with sweetness: / Nepenthes, Pinguicula, Saracenia.’).

Section three shares the collection’s title. In its title poem, ‘I am Lifting the Piano with One Hand’, Holmes imaginatively and ironically enacts a new-found empowerment, having lived through the book’s traumas to become the perfect example of the clichéd ‘strong woman’. The poem paints a period-drama scene of religion’s weaker-sex in her rightful place (note the sarcastic ‘just’ in line one, and the repeated ‘strong’ in the last line), and resurrects ‘any passing ghosts’ that the poet ever allowed into her life:

Today I am just unusually strong
and able to carry the piano up three flights of stairs
where I’ll leave the skylight window open
and a note inviting any passing ghosts
to come in, sit down and play ‘Moonlight Sonata’
or ‘Chopin’s Nocturne’ or ‘The Entertainer’
or whatever they’d like to play on a neglected piano
in the house of a strong woman.

These poems explore self, family, home and home-sickness, death and grief, friendship, love, and love gone sour. They generally avoid difficult obscurity, and freely entertain common idiom and cliché. For me, this admirable accessibility occasionally lessens the impact of more original moments (‘Murdering my Darlings’ predictably subverts the old workshop adage, and ‘Someone Should Tell her Mother she’s Taking Drugs’ catalogues the clichés of the ‘creative life’ from a nosy neighbour’s perspective). But the best of Holmes’ observations have a warmth and humanity that makes the strangest, funniest, most moving moments stand out.

Mark Burnhope

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