Title: The Space Between Us
Author: Neil Elder
Publisher: Cinnamon Press
Pages: 74 pages
Reviewer: Mandy Pannett
In 2015 I had the pleasure of reviewing Neil Elder’s pamphlet Codes of Conduct for the winter issue of Sentinel Literary Quarterly and so was delighted to hear that The Space Between Us was the winner of the Cinnamon Press debut poetry collection prize in 2017.
Codes of Conduct was largely anecdotal and took an ironic and witty look at daily life in an office block, a superficial and emotionally bleak place in which to work. In spite of the humour, the poems had an edge to them, an understated but grim look at issues.
This collection, The Space Between Us, is equally enjoyable though different and more varied. It is less anecdotal and ‘funny’, but the edge is still there, albeit with a light touch: oblique but sharp, understated but keen.
The poems, as the title implies, are concerned with gaps and vacuums , aspects of spaces between people, objects, events, stories, words, ideas and historical time. Sometimes the situations are grim and the tone downbeat: Believers depicts ‘The blackest of years’ where ‘Roughened up and frightened,/we need an axe/to break strange doors/we find ourselves behind.’ The mother and child in Removal take with them ‘souvenirs of fear.’ Auction Room is particularly hard hitting as memories and objects that have been loved and bequeathed are ‘cashed in’ and ‘The patina of lives is rubbed away.’ In the last two lines the comment is brutal: ‘the hammer will fall on the past/while I start counting the cash.’
The first poem in The Space Between Us is called This handbook remains out of print and introduces an important issue. The swimmer who is addressed is told not to try going ‘uphill with a snow suit on’. The safest approach, it is suggested, ‘is to lie on your back/Letting the current take over.’
Earlier I mentioned the quality of understatement that is a strong feature of Neil Elder’s work and the more I have read the poems in The Space Between Us the more striking it seems. He is, I feel, a master of juxtaposition and the apparently simple metaphor. The two-stanza poem Grief Stricken is a perfect example of this:
‘What strikes me is the way grief
clings to you like wet clothes.
What pains me is that you have grown
into them as though they are a second skin.
I remember returning from school
soaked through and dripping.
Get those clothes off quick –
they’ll be the death of you.’
After Sun uses a similar device of implication to suggest menace behind the everyday. People on the beach have packed up their costumes and towels because of a change in the weather which is now ‘broken’, causing the sky to be ‘the colour/of the seals we watched/this morning in the bay.’ For some reason, however, they don’t leave but continue to stay ‘rockpooled in silence/rueing the change’ although they know that if they don’t make a move soon they’ll be ‘washed away’. At the end of the poem there is a hidden threat that is more than just bad weather. ‘The gulls know what is coming’ says the narrator, ‘and fly inland.’
Another aspect of Neil Elder’s writing that I admire is his skill with the striking phrase. Among my favourites in The Space Between Us’ are ‘the ammonite queue’ (On the Rise), ‘rubbing out life’s cramps’ (What We Could Not Give), ‘only at high noon will bats return to caves’ (3.7cm (or 1.48 inches) Every Year), and, perhaps best of all, ‘In beige afternoons, when I feel/fur growing around my strawberry heart …’ (Descaling).
There is a fine and memorable set of poems in this collection but there are some that stand out for me in particular. Thank You for Visiting conveys an impression of the pointlessness of life reduced, in the end, to gift shop trivia, but stronger than this is the sense of yearning and nostalgia for what might have been: ‘Our tea-towel designs show all the women/ you ever wanted to make love to,/while fridge magnets illustrated with your darkest fantasies/ may also be purchased/ …these are situated next to the life-size cut-outs of the man you hoped to be.’
Three ‘relationship’ poems that I find particularly poignant and moving are Portrait with Orange, Arles, and Tired of London. They are beautiful in tone and craft. For poetry that is exceptional and way beyond the ordinary, I must recommend The Fish and the Jay and The Gaps. Both longer poems, they are stunning.
At the end of The Space Between Us the question remains as to whether or not life should be a matter of doing nothing, going with the tide and letting oneself be absorbed by and into the spaces between us. Mostly, as said, the mood is downbeat, describing a mental feeling of dread with ‘the photographs you take inside your mind’ (Spotlight) and a physical state whereby we’ve ‘been eating the land.’ (Earth Eater). Overall, however, grimness is leavened with a light touch: the narrator in Flatpack feels something close to joy in the way he/she has ‘learnt the ways to improvise’ and has managed to bodge an item together although ‘it looks nothing like the picture on the box.’ There is a feeling of epiphany in Stargazing where the couple, observing the stars and ‘joining the dots as we go’, walk together on the beach ‘beneath the darkest-brightest sky’. In What We Could Not Give the poem ends on a note of promise and warmth: ‘The only thing that we can give/is the space that stands between us;/not as empty as it seems’.
Finally, I’ll end this review of Neil Elder’s remarkable collection with Claude Debussey’s apt quotation that is used in the preface: ‘Music is the space between the notes.’ SLQ