The Sunday Poem: No 46 Carol Rumens

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work

A British writer with a very direct voice, very watchful of other people's - especially women's - lives; how they are affected by the different places in which they live. She herself lives mainly in Belfast. Her subjects range from personal-domestic to historical-political, in a wide range of international settings from Belfast to Russia, and the Holocaust. Several translations from Russian poetry, 10 collections, and several Selecteds.

A poem about distancing yourself from the pain of self-distancing. Its bare, dizzily repetitive statements get the dissociated feel of seeing- things-utterly-new at a time when lives have changed radically: the dissociation centres on the house, age-old image (see Greek tragedy) of family. She gets the unnerving strangeness across by surrealism; that house getting bigger every minute. But she gets across the dazedness, and the claustrophobia - the only reason given for the split (it was rather small, which is partly the reason I ...) - by sound. Repeated words and phrases (cold and house, six times; you say and bigger, three times; a house that size, of course and visit twice) suggest a conversation (both in the head, and with the ex-spouse) going round in circles. Above all, repeated vowels make the poem a structure of constantly returning echoes, apt for this getting bigger house. The rhyming opens house, day, house, then say. It could be terza rima (three-line stanzas, rhyming a-b-a b-c-b etc). But then the rhyming wanders off to randomness, like the marriage; like the reasons for its dissolution which trail off into the unsayable (the reason that I ...); and like the material structure which once contained and summed up the marriage and now keeps changing in imagination, as the rhyme-scheme keeps slipping as you listen.

Instead of a constant rhyme-pattern, you have a series of dominating vowels. The first stanza sets up long O (cold, go) and AY (say, day). The second and third repeat these (cold, say, home; so, cold, say). So do the sixth and eighth (says, go; know, go), but meanwhile the third stanza picks up I'll from in the first and identifies it with the key emotion-word: child. That long I echoes through the poem, often in an end word (a stressed position): see size (twice) and why, after the breakdown of communication, those trailing-off dots. The second stanza starts another vowel-ball rolling in two, picking up you in the first; for this poem begins from what you said, not I, and OO blows through you, two, you, too, you, too, you, to the end of the fifth stanza. Then it stops dead; as the contrast between past warmth and present cold turns comments on what you say into the imperative mode: Don't. The fourth stanza brings another new vowel with a new adjective for the house. It's cold: and big, too. That short I, picked up by with - a resonant word (see with everybody there) in a poem for a process that means everybody will never be there with each other again. That short I runs on in think, bigger, think, big, it is, to dominate the last verse and close the poem (visit, bigger, minute, with, in it).

Vowel-partnerings ricochet and reverberate in the echoey sound-structure as if through an empty house. Coldness blows through it, but where does it come from? The poet, the one who left home, doesn't want to know, won't give a proper reason for leaving (don't keep on asking me why), whose only approach to you is repeating words you say, whose only softening is that negative-filled remark, don't think I don't think about you/ being cold? But no. The poem's sound, repetitions and surrealism put the poet, as well as the house, in a new, unknowable world: a looking-glassy, nightmare world where normal, familiar rules of physics or behaviour, of things staying as they are, no longer apply. The best sensual image for that is the temperature: cold. The poet's own unspoken pain bursts out at the breaking-down dots, followed by how can I, how can I? And then, in the last line, the poet does what she said she didn't want to do. She does enter the house - but in imagination: to touch those now unthinkably cold family rooms.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`From a Conversation ...' is taken from Best China Sky (Bloodaxe)

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas