Meeting on common ground

Jill Pirrie

EVIDENCE OF ELEPHANTS by Gerard Benson Viking Pounds 9.99. - 0 670 85960 5 GIVE YOURSELF A HUG by Grace Nichols A C Black Pounds 7.99. - 0 7136 4054 5 Age range 8 plus. Jill Pirrie welcomes two humane and refreshing poetry collections.

Throughout Evidence of Elephants there is a sense that it is the way of words to lead us gently into new insights. In "After the Book is Closed", for instance, the poet dwells on : "simply the way they call feelingsinto the openLike a fox seen suddenly in a fieldfrom a hurrying train".

Moreover, this will endure "long after the book is closed". Words are also our times and seasons. In "Dog at the Temple", this is the exotic place where "The picture-words stand in columns", Cleopatra prayed, and now "Tourist guides recite their lessons." Yet it is the unmoved and sprawling dog who outfaces time and provides a sense of humbling perspective. Nearer to home, for the stroke victim in "In Hospital", the words are trapped in the head and the mute hand holding is both the only comfort and the final despair.

Other poems tackle issues. But however huge and universal the themes the poet wisely eschews the didactic. It is when we know that we are part of the mystery and wonder of Earth that a sense of responsibility is inculcated at a profound and enabling level.

In "A Small Star" there is the inescapable implication that we too are among the "growing things everywhere(which) make beauty from dirt".

Then there is the title poem. Given only the bones, how could we know the might and the miracle which is elephant? It is the fleshing out upon which imagination feeds and grows. The numinous quality of these poems is anchored in reality.

Light relief comes in riddles, songs and word play. The humour is wry; the silliness works.

In this collection, we meet on the common ground of our vulnerable humanity. Once there, words become a gentle and abiding obsession, not just for the poet but for each one of us.

Grace Nichols's admirers will not be disappointed by her new anthology. Here is all the cheerful exuberance, the robust energy we have come to expect. Moreover, these are poems which address the human predicament and transcend cultural barriers. In "My Gran Visits England", Gran has hardly put down her suitcase before she finds comfort digging in the garden. And she celebrates: "Boy, come and take my photo - the place cold,But wherever there's God's earth, I'm at home."

Above all, these are poems to read aloud. The Caribbean rhythms are not only accessible, but seductive. In "In the Great Womb-Moon" the insistent refrain: "Time was a milleniumIn my mother's belly" takes us outside time and race to the place from which we all come. By the end of the poem, we know we are strangers in this sometimes uncomfortable world. The least we can do is acknowledge our kinship.

A poem like "For Dilberta", biggest elephant in London Zoo, goes beyond making her in striking metaphor to her poignant longing to fly, moth like, to her lost forest. "She could be a Moth!" breaks down the barriers of conventional imagining in a way hitherto unthinkable. And that kind of courage is the hallmark of this humane and refreshing collection.

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