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A Compression of Distances by Daphne Gloag (Cinnamon Press, 2009)

Reviewed by Linda Black

A Compression of Distances by Daphne Gloag, one time medical journalist, and scholar of classics and philosophy, is a paean to her life with her late husband, to whose memory the collection is dedicated. In the words of Rabindranath Togore, quoted in the epigraph, ‘My songs… brought before my sight many a star on the horizon of my heart.’ 

Gloag’s sight is both immediate and far-reaching, one could say without boundaries: 


So many days with no particulars, 

painted like a reflection of sky… 

such freedom, it was like the immensity 

of sky in our hands. But it was only 

the immensity of every day. 

We were surprised that moments held so much space 

 (The Painting of Light is Without Boundaries


The collection begins with the title poem, commemorating ‘our wedding anniversary’, introducing us to a couple ‘entwined’ as the leaves on the roof bosses of Winchester Cathedral. Written in the manner of a conversation – or the relating of a conversation, the plain language of ‘I said’/’you said’ – here and throughout the book the ‘we’ is as one, passionately in awe of life: ‘We couldn’t get enough/of our sky.’ A meeting of hearts and minds, it seems the perfect relationship, complete and tender: 


We lay close as two words, then you wrapped me 

like a parenthesis. 

I was warmed by meaning 

 (The Palindrome) 


The attempt – as successful as such an attempt could be – is to pin down the moment, the everyday epiphanies, the ‘not quite graspable’, to capture ‘ the irreplaceable days’, in communion with the elements; water, light, stars, the universe: 


Whether it was flower or light 

mattered little: 


It was held for us 

by the water 


Is this what memory does – reconfigure the days? This is what becomes of love 

when a life is done. 


The latter quote from The Lake, a longer poem in seven parts (inspired we learn from the endnotes, by a line from Dante’s Purgatorio canto 12: ‘Think that this day never dawns again’) evokes the oneness of the union in all its profound simplicity – and intellect: 


Once we read up 

the etymology of water: 

we didn’t know that a distant relative 

is unda, wave… 

abound and abundant. 


No one, you said 

would mistake the meaning 

of us sitting by the water, 

sharing abundances, 

 changed forever. 


At the Café Ondina, a long poem in two sections, quotes from Spenser (‘you recited Spenser to me’), speaks of ‘reciprocal love’, words written in the sand, ‘close as two lovers’, then photographed ‘as if negating/ obliteration’: But came the waves andwashéd it away. The poem’s second stanza quotes from Paradise Lost – the couple are likened to Adam and Eve, such is their self sufficiency: 


They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow 

Through Eden took their solitarie way 


Hand in hand... we held to that paragon peace 

of destinations and beginnings. 


Where e’er they go is Paradise: ‘This is Paradise , you said ( the tranquillity of words connecting us)’, only occasionally populated by others – the Acrobat in the Piazza,  ‘no longer denied the scope of the sky’, aiming knives at balloons, ‘at first misses them (he is human after all)’; Morris dancers, whose accordion music ‘has no beginning/and no end’; Giotto, given voice in The Boy Giotto Draws Sheep on Rock (c.1280), who implores others to ‘look and look/at the world’ in his desire to ‘make things real’ under ‘stars falling out of blue distances’, ahead of him ‘ only time and dust’. 

Biblical references continue; in Joseph’s Story, a three page poem in which Joseph relates the flight from Herod, as depicted in Flight into Egypt by Tintoretto, who caught them ‘at a bad moment’, yet ‘made the whole scene/a drama of light’ so that, ‘I began/ to see things in new ways.’ The poem relates a story relating a story, leading us on to the next poem,Arnolfini Story, after Jan van Eyke, beginning ‘Of course light isn’t everything.’ 

The final section of the book, the first two parts of a six part sequence entitled Beginnings, has grand designs, seeking as it does to explore ‘the personal in the context of the cosmological’. The elegiac tone continues – the ‘we’ as one, the unified field of thought, now introducing a sense of urgency; ‘I had to tell you while we had time’. Though vast, their world is an insular one, as if populated by the two alone, no need for any other: ‘You and I understand how matter/is drawn to matter.’ When, rarely, they do step outside the small universe of their intimacy and observe, even ‘our granddaughter’ is seen as ‘a child of that hair’s breadth victory/of particles over antiparticles…’ 

A six line poem, Nothing, refers to Leibniz (an advocate of rationalism) asking ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’, wonders ‘suppose there was nothing’, subverting the romantic notion of a forever love: 


an absence of that huge daring the universe, 

a chill and a darkness 


 lasting forever, 

nothing and forever without meaning. 


All but two of the earlier poems in the sequence take their momentum from scientific terms, mostly pertaining to cosmology, with a simple explanation preceding each poem, for exampleInflation, Afterglow, Dark matter. The scientific and the magical are conflated: 

A small waterfall, ripple after ripple 

on the pool. A bit of magic

you said. Mulberries fell 

from the tree, sheen 

of purple. 


We ate a few, fingers stained with copious juice. 

The magic of facts, I said. 

Ripples of high cloud covered the sky… 

The magic of becoming us as we were then 

in space and time that unrepeatable day, 


Gloag’s wonderings, her attempts to make sense of her/their place in the universe, both physically and emotionally, beyond the psyche and the tangible, despite the scientific references, verge on mysticism. One does not doubt the intensity of the experience, the depth of personal connection – the concept of the universe is awe inspiring.

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