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A Paston Letter by Ian Parks (Rack Press)

Reviewed by Linda Black

Ian Parks seems to attract oxymoronic statements from reviewers, such as ‘powerful reticence’ and ‘tender severity’. This may be something to do with his subject matter, which is love. 

Earlier this year Flux Gallery Press published Love Poems 1979 – 2009, a collection of more than 70 love poems. “For me,” states Parks in an interview for Dream Catcher magazine, “there’s an intimate connection between the condition of being in love and the sort of situations or states from out of which poems tend to emerge”. 

Parks’ recent slim pamphlet, A Paston Letter published by Rack Press, a sequence of thirteen (unlucky for some) poems in the voice of Margery Paston, tracing her thwarted love for Richard Calle, is inspired by the 15th Century text ‘The Paston Letters’. The period is that of the Wars of the Roses. We learn that Margery, prevented from marrying Richard because of his social position, is awaiting an arranged marriage. A letter from her lover telling of her sorrow and his pain (‘it is to me a death to hear that ye be entreated otherwise than you ought to be’ ) serves as an epigraph and urges her to ‘let it be burnt, for I would no man would see it’. As with Hardy, love is doomed from the start. 

It is no surprise therefore to read of Parks’ admiration for Hardy:  “I love the way his poems seem suspended between two tenses; the way that the past is implicit in the present and, because of this, relationships are always somehow provisional or, at the very least, compromised . . . he pursues the ideal of romantic love and yet feels obliged to question its validity”. 

The poem begins in the lyric manner with a rhyming couplet and a strong rhythm; ‘Three white roses – suns in splendour – / have their place linked on your shoulder’. The form is varied, and though this can be inventive, I found myself wondering why and how this serves the poem. The setting up of rhyming couplets does not continue, though there is much effective use of internal rhyme, half-rhyme and assonance. The third stanza begins with the last line of the second, ‘The adder slithers out to nudge my hair’, as with a crown of sonnets, though this happens only the once, seemingly a device allowing the writer to continue the subject of hair and ‘its seventeen years’ growth let down’.

Negative omens surround Margery: fallen apples – ‘their distant thud’; on the bridge by St Paul’s ‘three wizen objects thrust on spikes’; the ‘blistered fruit’ she eats, as well as the slithering adder. Margery is the victim of her era and her circumstances – an ill-fated heroine whose life ‘is one of absences.’ The division in a country ‘with two kings’ reflects the division within the family, ‘the talk of husbands / grown ominous’, and Margery’s inner conflict and suffering: 


And like two kings 

my suitors strive, 

finding no peace 

until one is dead. 


Now England’s fate 

and mine are woven 

with the selfsame thread. 


From the fifth poem in the sequence, line lengths are shorter – the cadence feels less fluid than in the first four stanzas, where the form works well, resulting in the occasional over emphasis of end rhymes. 

I am struck by the several mentions of ‘stone’, an unyielding, impervious and unchanging material (save by the erosion of centuries): 


The women carry 

two hot stones 

to warm a place 

inside my bed 


This is scant comfort for Margery, alone and pining for her lover. In the penultimate poem their unborn children ‘crouch in stone around / the base of a tomb / supporting the weight / of two effigies’: 


Carved suns and roses 

link us. 


My head 

is cushioned with stone’. 


A Paston Letter is a haunting, elegiac poem, a dramatic monologue in which there is little solace, reminding us, as does Richard’s letter, ‘this is a painful life we lead’. It takes us back to a period in English history when women’s lives were not their own – indeed a tragedy to lament: 


From a confused 

tangle of wild briars 

I watch as birds converge 

in stillness. Stillness can purge 

everything, except desires, 

into a greater stillness. 

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