Review of Cottage Pi by Graham Burchell

Cottage Pi  by Graham Burchell   SPM Publications    Review by Mandy Pannett        ISBN 978-0-9927055-9-6

There are many things to admire in Graham Burchell’s latest poetry collection (including the cover art designed by the author himself). For now, however, I want to concentrate on the aspect that most appeals to me – the detailed creation of a sense of place underpinned by nostalgia for a previous and very different setting and by the pain of allowing new memories to form. ‘I will reshape my steps’ he says in the opening poem and this is what subsequent pieces in Cottage Pi show him attempting to do.

After Hours presents the reader with the situation. The author has moved from a seaside town in Devon, a place with ‘herring gull sky’ and ‘lightly salted air’, to a small, urban stone cottage by a major road and a railway. Here, in the middle of a terrace, ‘breath’ is ‘squeezed’ like ‘a Cinderella between two sisters’ while the tiny rooms ‘cower’ against the busyness and noise. A powerful word, ‘cower’ and it seems implicit in the poems, especially the earlier ones, that it is not only the setting that cowers and shuffles breathlessly. In this new home Burchell sets about his task of reshaping and adapting to ‘new floors’ with ‘memories pressed under my ribs’. A difficult and emotional task.

Good Deeds develops this theme. The poet finds that reshaping involves absorbing the atmosphere of a new place in all its guises. This includes all the stuff and mess left behind by the man and his boy who lived there before – ‘blue-tack on hot-chocolate coloured walls,/stickers on a radiator, a pile of two pence pieces,/ a greasy oven, bits of Tupperware fossilising/on top of cupboards, a drip in the cistern/and a roughage of papers’. Here, in this cottage, a copy of the house deeds brings in memories from a much earlier time. Although the papers are fading in sepia they still offer hope of a new beginning like ‘a birth certificate’ or ‘a treasure map’.

A theme running through Cottage Pi is that of light and its absence or loss. There is only ‘half-light’ from the window where Burchell is trying to read the documents (Good Deeds); he hopes to plant new seeds in his old pots but ‘there isn’t the light’; even the sky is ‘small’ (I Sowed Seeds).

Space and the lack of it is also a theme in this and other poems.  ‘There isn’t the light. There isn’t the space/there used to be’, he says, and the space where new seeds might grow is ‘manhole dark’. In a later poem (The Misplaced House) we have an image of the author sitting in the garden with a book, so near the road that ‘with a fishing rod, I could touch passing cars’.

It is hard to adapt, to accept ‘birdsong drowned, by engine roar, brakes;’ (My Misplaced House). Comparisons provide the pivot between the old and the new. The title poem Cottage Pi details this dilemma – Burchell,  worrying over ‘the exact colour’ of the A385, remembers how previously he had ‘fussed over the colour/of the sea’. In the last stanza the sound of traffic is compared to the sound of the sea:
 …………‘Passing vehicles sound like breaking waves
…………on a pebble beach. The seventh, the big one,
 …………is often deeply articulated.’

There is sadness and nostalgia throughout the poems in Cottage Pi – a sense of yearning for childhood, the loss of contentment with its ‘small moments’, the ‘summer’ of a wedding day. (Summer). There is also humour – lots of it – and lyrical detailed poems such as Fishmore, where the carp live, and Window Spider where Burchell observes the spider that is ‘the size and colour/of a grain of rice, and the legs/are eight of my whitest moustache hairs’.

There is also a feeling of acceptance, or at least of resignation, so that ‘need’, which resembles the sea holly from Guatemala that Burchell grows in one of his pots, does not only contain the pain of ‘a child that howls/having been raised by wolves’ (In my Tiny Garden) but may also become part of another small moment to cherish as one sips tea. (Happiness).

Cottage Pie is an enchanting collection, beautifully produced by SPM Publications, and other readers will find a great many further delights.