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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)