Category Archives: Book review

The Yellow Table by Alicia Stubbersfield

The Yellow Table, published by Pindrop Press (2013), is Alicia Stubbersfield’s fourth collection. Her first collection, The Magician’s Assistant, was published by Flambard (1994). I had no idea this existed until I read on the back cover of The Yellow Table that it was her fourth collection. I’d always thought her first was Unsuitable Shoes from the Collective Press (1999), which I’d bought on a course at Lumb Bank in 2001 tutored by Alicia and Jim Friel. Her third collection was Joking Apart, also from the Collective Press (2006). Discovering that there was a book before Unsuitable Shoes sent me scurrying online where I found a couple of copies on Amazon Marketplace: one going for £6.95, the other for £89.95 (plus £2.80 P&P)! You can still buy the second copy. I’m now the owner of the first.

Throughout all four collections the poems are grounded in family, place, friends, dogs, and students (Alicia is a teacher). There is love and loss, pain, joy, a good deal of sadness, often imbued with Alicia’s wry sense of humour. Above all her poems are a pleasure to read, both in terms of theme, voice, sound and shape, and this is especially true of the latest collection, which contains fifty-two poems arranged in three sections, each taking its title from one of the poems.

As a reader of poetry I admire poets whose writing is authentic, or as Peter Sansom puts it: poets who say genuinely what they genuinely need to say. I find this to be abundantly true of Alicia’s writing. For example, in Just Changing the Car, she describes the car bought for her 50th, a time of marriage breakdown, and ends by telling us triumphantly about the car she buys as a single person with ‘five doors, Sat Nav/so I know where I’m going’. Then there is Over, my favourite from the first section of the book because it brings dry humour to a subject that not too many years ago would have been considered unmentionable. The speaker, having her coil removed, reminisces on past coils. ‘I have counted out my life/in intrauterine devices’ is a humorous allusion to Eliot’s ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’. The final lines of the poem made me laugh. The trainee GP, having removed the device, says: ‘it looks fresh,/…and I feel obscurely pleased/as though I’d kept it nice on purpose.’

The American (ex)soldier poet Brian Turner talks, in his workshops, about what he calls a poetry of witness. This view clearly grew out of his experience of the war in Iraq as so wonderfully (and horrifically) described in his collection Here Bullet. He believes that we should all be witnesses of events in the poetry we write. In the second section of The Yellow Table, titled Marking there are a number of poems of witness. There are six darkly humorous vignettes of class/student situations starting with Year 7, Period 1, Wednesday and ending with Scream. The best of these, although they are all very good, is Keeping it Back, which describes a boy of fifteen or sixteen with psychiatric problems who has an innate ability to play piano—he sounds like a savant to me. The poem ends telling the reader how ‘music is the flame he kindled’ and how ‘it burned his family’s house down’. The Game is a long narrative poem in two parts. In the first part the narrator tells the story of a boy who took to a life of crime, how he would tell the narrator the secrets of his trade, how he was caught and sent to Young Offenders’ Institutions before climbing through the ranks to become a regional manager in the drug trade. This, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have a happy ending; the boy-become-man is sent down for twenty years. The second part deals with the boy-as-person; the boy with intelligence, probably above average; the boy damaged beyond repair by dysfunctional parents; the boy who wrote ‘Pages and pages of clear writing describing his life:/the mates he made, how to get the newest shirts,/ how things would be different when he came out’.

The final section of the book, Influenced, is the longest with twenty-one poems, mostly concerned with family matters. The yellow table could be considered a metonym for the speaker’s life and times. The poet’s mother was the original owner of the table with ‘its splayed legs sturdy on the lino’s primary colours’, then ‘The table came with my mother when she moved in with us, we took it to Cheshire, Yorkshire and, after she died, to Wales’ and ‘When we divorced I kept it in in my garage, the yellow smudged/ from all the kitchens I’d painted, fifty years’ wear and tear’. The poem ends with a final affirmation that the past is just that, the past, and it’s time to move on: ‘Now I’m throwing it away’. Dimming is a short elegy dedicated to the memory of the poet Linda Chase. It is a beautiful, tender poem, in which ‘My dead jostled for position, trying to line up/ in order of importance…I do remember them/like I remember you telling me of old lovers…and on that Wednesday,/when you knew you were going to die,/saying I’ve had an idea.’  We were both together by Linda’s hospital bed a couple of days before she died. She’d wanted to end her days at home surrounded by spring flowers and my memory of her saying ‘I’ve had an idea’ was that she wanted to set up a video screen in the Village Hall with sofas so all her friends could sit and watch films. Sadly this never happened. Linda was a huge film buff who spent much time at the Corner House in Manchester. I love this poem and I miss Linda.

Pindrop Press has done an excellent job of setting The Yellow Table: the paper is good quality and the typesetting excellent (I have a thing about paper and fonts). The cover reproduces Kate’s Flowers, a painting by Winifred Nicholson, and is in complete harmony with the title of the book.

I could go on, but have probably gone on too long already. If you like poetry that deals with life as it is, warts and all, and doesn’t try to be something better than itself, and us, then this is a book worth reading.

Keith Lander