Lissie Coleman

RHODRI DELANGES is delighted by a punctual arrival from one of our premier living poets

Only once a year, normally around late September/early October time, does Lissie Coleman send out of her extraordinary poems out into the world; always handwritten, always on the same pages from the same battered notebooks, it is as true a sign of autumn as the falling of the leaves or the sounds of conkers in the playground.

Coleman, who turned 90 last year, has provided one poem a year for the last sixty years.   The first, ‘Bid Me Answer’ in 1951, was a rich, complex meditation about the death of George VI and the anticipated coronation; its arresting opening (“I wish that my dad was dead / And that I could put a great big crown on my head”) led to a sudden burst of fame for the young Coleman (a celebrity now sadly lost and forgotten).   In an interview in GreyStones in 1960 she described the moment when she first sat down to write as “impossibly lovely“; “it was like I knew then that I needed to write, once a year, every year for the rest of my life,” she said, “and I intend to do this till I die.”

Her works for the next sixty years often turned on the major influences of declining Imperial power, social change and her own attempt to mediate all of these influences.  In them, as we move from the classically perfect, terrifying ‘A Grey Hound’ in 1956 to the highly controversial ‘Windrush’ in 1965 (the only quotable lines come from the end of the second stanza: “I just don’t understand / What’s Going On These Days.”) to the infinitely surprising ‘Sex-Orgy-Throb-Beast’s Fluid’ in 1989 (a poem so utterly saturated with vivid and transgressive sexuality that it was astonishing to remember that Coleman was in her late sixties when she wrote it) we see her control and dictate a thousand different voices.   In her can trace many of the most exciting movements in twentieth century poetry – as the critic Larry F. Hyam says, “[in Coleman’s work] we see the twentieth century at its most startling, its most tedious, its most everything.”  In truth, the lines that start her 1976 poem, “Flying Under” might stand as a suitable summary of her entire process: “Thread and steal and bring and buy / To all the rich pageant tapestry develops”.

Her work for 2010,”Groaning To His Missus”,  released on 25th September, is as rich and as powerful as any that preceded it.   This section, which comes from the fifth of nine smaller sections, is subtitled, “My My My”:

“My My My
They Did Tell Me That You Had Been Here;
But I would not let them in to meet you.
This is the kind of slowness that meat has
When it is lost to the back of the stewpot –
Or the birds
Or the trees
Or the leaves.
Though these, of course, do not go into any pot
That I would make.
My My My.
They Told Us That It Was A Meeting.
My My My.”
“The Collected Poetry of Lissie Coleman”, edited by Rhodri Delanges (with an introduction by Larry F. Hyam), is to be published by Porter-Turra Books in spring 2011.

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