Tag Archives: Neil Elder

Mandy Pannett reviews Neil Elder’s The Space Between Us

Title: The Space Between Us

Author: Neil Elder

Publisher: Cinnamon Press

ISBN:  978-1-78864-016-9

Pages: 74 pages

Price: £8.99

Reviewer: Mandy Pannett


clip_image001In 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

Review of ‘Codes of Conduct’ – Poetry Collection by Neil Elder

Review of Codes of Conduct by Neil Elder Cinnamon Press ISBN: 978-1-910836-06-4

Neil Elder’s original and entertaining collection is divided into two parts. Codes of Conduct 1 (the longer sequence) focuses on the persona of Henderson and his daily life in an office block. No one at work knows much about Henderson, anything he knows about them is superficial, the reader is limited to a few factual details with the occasional glimpse into Henderson’s inner world when he dreams ‘his way out of a meeting’.

The poems in this first section are anecdotal. Cleverly and delightfully so. Characters flitting in and out are known mainly by their office positions such as Amy Bridges (Accounts), Victoria Stock (Human Resources Facilitator). Business, in this world of targets, relies on abbreviations – BSC, CPD, HR, while Henderson spends a long time filling in sections of the innocuous M83 Return to Work Pro Forma. Language is similarly pallid, confined to jargon and glib phrases. Henderson is forced to attend a Dignity in the Workplace Training Day, attend a session on Email Etiquette, use a USB ‘for cascading upwards all he has learnt.’ (Training Session).

A narrow, distancing world, this office block, where any kind of emotional contact is anathema. Sarj, making his own birthday cake to share with others, is thanked with ‘kisses and backslaps’ (Birthday Cake ). Michaela starts sobbing about her cheating boyfriend as Henderson, worried in case he is late for a Professional Review and Development Meeting, squeezes her hand ‘gently’ then ‘strides towards the lift.’ (Office Gossip).

This whole first section of Codes of Conduct is packed with small ironic details and snippets of life presented with such humour that I defy anyone to read the poems and not laugh out loud or at least smile with pleasure at Neil Elder’s skill. There are too many examples to mention but I must comment on some that amused me most – the fact that Amy’s popularity depends on her being the only person who has ‘a stapler that works’ (Amy’s Desk), the way Henderson has to fill in endless forms and ‘rank the severity of his sickness on a scale of one to ten’ (Back to Work), the sad case of the sixth-former, Jordan, who arrives on work experience with expectations of becoming an entrepreneur and who abandons his dream when he finds ‘his days are blurs/of filing, photocopying and coffee machines.’ (Work Experience).

Entertaining – yes, immensely. But these poems have an edge to them, an understated but grim look at issues and realities. People ‘lament’ the loss of the natural world as they watch a David Attenborough programme on TV and there is a lot of talk about ‘spearheading’. Yet there is no real concern or compassion here, no leadership in a situation where African States are idly represented by paper clips in different colours and a Sumatran tiger is considered only by its picture on an office calendar. ‘Supplies are running low’, thinks Henderson – but it is his own supplies of plasters and Lemsip, not lack of provisions in a refugee camp. One of the most hard-hitting details occurs when Henderson mentions the decline of the Grevy’s zebra in Kenya and his colleague, Grant, thinks Grevy’s is a reference to a new system of output. (Out to Lunch).

In one part of the collection, Henderson attends a Blue Sky Consortium Meeting where he ‘watches the world become brighter’. The irony is that it’s only because the heavy duty, double-glazed windows are being cleaned that the world looks suddenly bright. (Clean Windows).

Codes of Conduct 2 has a shorter selection of poems and probably it is Henderson’s anecdotes that will remain in the reader’s mind. Two pieces in this section, however, stand out for me and must be mentioned: Boot Cleaning, a poem about love, and Touchpaper where the narrator hopes life may be more than ‘something in the periphery’ and where hope may turn out to be like the ‘fizzing blue’ of a Van Gogh midnight, a touchpaper that people together might light.

Mandy Pannett