Neil Elder’s collection, The Space Between Us was published by Cinnamon Press in 2018, having won their debut collection prize. His pamphlet Codes of Conduct was shortlisted for a Saboteur Award. Other works include And The House Watches On and Being Present. His latest work is Like This was published by 4Word Press. Neil lives in Harrow, N.W. London.
Like This by Neil Elder £5.99 4Word Press 9782490653119
Neil Elder’s poems have a clarity and directness that’s sorely missing in much of today’s poetry. Yet that’s not to be confused with simplicity. The poet takes everyday moments and charges them with a uniquely reflective lyricism and subversive playfulness. Rarer still, he has an almost mystic-like inner eye: the ability to peer through the mundane and see the edges of the world. Many of the poems radiate a quiet melancholy, but almost all are tempered with wry, warm-spirited humour.
The poems in Like This have an acute self-awareness, and are written with a refreshingly original turn of phrase, giving them a great lightness of touch. Elder is brilliant at creating the set up – many poems begin in the way you might tee up a comedy sketch (more of which later).
In Reading Thomas Savage, the poet labours in an upper room with a novel, while his wife and daughter laugh along to I’m a Celebrity downstairs. It’s cleverly designed to mirror the distance between high and low brow culture. The poet suddenly sees the absurdity of persevering with his book about those who are ‘struggling and suffering’, while his family are falling about with laughter right beneath his feet. It creates an ironic counterpoint and somehow captures the artist or scholar’s dilemma. Why bother to reflect, read and write at all? Why not simply enjoy the ride?
In his introduction, Elder admits that while these are ‘not poems directly about our times,’ the pandemic inevitably hangs over them. But if the introspection of recent lockdowns have informed these accomplished, thoughtful poems, then it appears to have sharpened his sensibility. These poems are about seeking connection – both literally and figuratively; between the living and the dead, between the reader and writer; between friends and lovers. They explore the idea of isolation and interdependency, as well as the diminishing returns of digital rather than face to face contact. The collection’s title, Like This, itself hints at the hollow hit, and shallow reward of a Facebook Like that none of us can resist.
In No Reception, a couple ‘leave the footpath’, breaking away from civilisation, and seek solace in nature, with its ‘crow crested trees’. The blissful moment of adventure and escape comes at a price however, and ends abruptly when they see an abandoned car that’s ‘flattened a path into wheat.’ The brutality of the modern world has followed them even here. It’s a jolt back to reality, and they feel the ‘tug of our lives.’ The weakness of our age – our crutch-like dependency on technology – repossesses then, and they hold their ‘phones up high’ searching ‘for a signal.’
Technology also informs ‘These Moments Will Keep You Warm,’ which captures fleeting scenes on a train. It opens with an arresting assertion:
The morning is an artist’s impression
But you have no storage space left.
Two simple acts of kindness: someone giving up their seat, and another returning a lost glove, are enough to restore the poet’s faith in others. They’re small triumphs of humanity over the artificial connections people seek through their screens.
Other poems have a Python-esque quality to them. The Ministry of Waiting, is a case in point, where ‘Of course there are no clocks, or windows.’ It is a sort of purgatory, with walls the colour of ‘August wheat / but you and I can see it’s beige.’ It’s hard to read this and not draw parallels with the ennui of lockdown, although Elder hints at a bigger idea: that this waiting, and accompanying sense of blandness, characterises so much of life itself. But, he admits, there are worse fates, for: ‘Suffering is near-by’ or there’s always ‘Broken promises.’ If Elder is disappointed with his lot, then, in Betjeman’s words, there’s always the consolation of laughter.
Ghost Days plays through a similar idea, albeit in a darker way. ‘Sleeping afternoons,’ he counsels, ‘makes night come quickly.’ All the talk here is about ‘how to kill time’ and how to spend ‘the brittle days we live in.’ But it concludes on an ominous note, detecting: ‘the static I feel rising.’ The reckoning is round the corner, he seems to be saying, and society is at breaking point.
Time is a theme Elder returns to throughout this collection. Some poems elongate it; others capture mere moments. Broken has a haiku like quality to it; simply freeze-framing the instant a glass is dropped and the ‘ecstasy of ants / amid the juice I spilt.’ But even this single moment is complicated by the question of blame: ‘Which of us let go too soon / I can never make out.’ It’s in a poet’s gift to slow and speed up time at will, and Elder is a master at it – giving him the ability to replay a moment, like an editor in a darkened room endlessly spooling the tape backwards and forwards, to tease out the lesson or find the perfect image.
If time is one theme in Like This, then mortality surely follows, and its spectre haunts so many of the pieces here. But in Elder’s work, the question is whether it’s been a life well-lived.
Ostensibly, a poem called ‘The theme is…’ constitutes a mild rebellion against an exercise to write a piece about the moon. Instead of trotting out the usual clichés, however, Elder chooses to write in miniature – about ‘a moon shaped stone:’
Like the stone I took away from the shore
the day I gave an urn of ashes to the sea
I won’t spoil the next couplet, as it’s one of the most beautiful in the book, but this short piece captures everything that’s great about Elder’s work, and Like This in particular: vividly described epiphanies, caught like flies in amber, that remind us of the miracle of our existence.
Like This is surprising and tender. It’s shot through with lived-experience and an empathetic reassurance that we’re not alone in the world. And it’s all enlivened by Elder’s dry, finely-judged humour. His poetry is recognisable and relatable. Whether that’s waiting for an absent-minded waiter, or for the traffic lights to change while parked up next to the boy racer in the next lane, we spend our lives holding out for epiphanies. Their infrequency makes them all the more precious when they appear. Yes, we’re all waiting for the end, but, Elder reminds us, there are moments of luminous beauty along the way. It’s all about the art of waiting.
Christopher James was born in Paisley Scotland in 1975. With an MA in Creative Writing from UEA, he is a winner of the National Poetry Competition, the Bridport Prize, the Ledbury, Crabbe and Oxford Brooks poetry competitions. He’s also a recipient of an Eric Gregory from the Society of Authors. His most recent collections are The Fool (Templar, 2014) and The Penguin Diaries (Templar, 2017). He also writes pastiche fiction, most recently, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Beer Barons (MX 2020)
Neil Elder: Four Poems from Like This
WHEN DAVID ATTENBOROUGH DIED
The news appeared online mid-morning,
catalyst for change, and like fire or flood
it spread across the office. We sat
dazed at our desks, and searched
for words or ways of understanding.
After an hour or more of silence
we left our workstations,
making sure to turn off all the lights.
Days later I heard that in almost every school
across the land classrooms emptied
when teachers broke the news,
and the kids held hands in circles rippling with tears.
Factories halted production; mushrooms
and strawberries were left to go round
and round on belts, plastic punnets remained empty.
And pilots quit their cockpits, refused to fly again;
that was the start of the Heathrow Nature Reserve.
By noon all cars had been abandoned,
most have been left to rust
where they stood; strange totems from the past.
And as I walked the six miles home
I passed people who needed to talk
or share their thoughts; some just needed a hug.
And on that night, it’s said,
fireflies across the globe turned out their lights,
while howler monkeys howled for hours
and in the Congo gorillas sat and reminisced.
That day has turned into a decade.
We still dream of his voice
echoing across the blue planet.
After a while we leave the footpath,
continuing in comfortable silence,
each wondering how we can turn today into forever.
Life must still be happening to people,
shops will be open, traffic is stacking up,
and we must believe that there are passengers
in planes that pass overhead.
But out here, where we have no reception,
there’s sky, fields, crow crested trees and us.
The sun is splashing through leaf cover
and I squeeze tight shut my eyes
to see a kaleidoscope rush of yellow and green.
Only when we see the burnt out car,
that’s flattened a path into wheat,
do we feel the tug of our lives,
hold our phones up high
and search for a signal.
THESE MOMENTS WILL KEEP YOU WARM
The morning is an artist’s impression,
and you have no storage space available.
But the girl down the carriage
who turns her face three-quarters
towards you is beautiful,
a Renaissance figure in rush hour.
This girl looks up from her phone
long enough to see an old woman
standing. The girl gestures, gets up to swap;
the woman sinks into the seat and smiles.
Someone taps you on the shoulder,
handing you the glove you’ve unwittingly
let fall from a pocket.
A LESSON LEARNT
Having bought paint, a roller, new brushes and masking tape,
we really should have got on with painting the hallway that weekend.
Instead we took so long to get around to it, a month or two at least,
that by the time the paint was on the walls we’d fallen out of love
with Sugared Lilac, and realised we should have stuck
with Frosted Plum, the one we’d liked at first.
Our children cannot understand
how it is that we have changed our minds.
Not when we appear so sure
of what is wrong with the government,
the music you should like,
and how we want our eggs.
Neil Elder: Four New Poems
TOMORROW AND TOMORROW …
About twice a week I think of taking my own life,
which I don’t think is bad; it’s less than last year.
In fact I bet most people think about this more than they admit.
I mean, how can they not? It seems the obvious thing to do
when you look at your life or watch the news.
But I’ve always been of the mindset why do today
what you can put off until tomorrow? Big decisions
are not to be rushed. Besides, the amount of choice
involved is overwhelming – like buying toothpaste –
how and where are first and foremost.
Would I leave a note or not? What to say
in such a letter, the tone to strike and do I leave
it by the kettle on the kitchen counter?
When I really get down to it, there are things
that I might miss. I’ve never seen Casablanca,
and I’d like to see The Graduate again;
not to mention the pile of books
I’ve never got around to reading.
All in all it’s just too much to think about;
easier to leave it for another day
while I go back to listing all the countries
that I shall never go to.
LOOKING INTO LIGHT
In those November mornings I would sit and watch the garden fill with light,
the fridge, my only kitchen company, going through its repertoire of sounds
while dark shapes silhouetted into trees before becoming the leyandii
where collared doves would disappear to nest.
In the pocket of the day I sat still, sipped water, took my pills
and considered what might happen if I stayed until the dusk
arrived to swallow up the day. Would my absence be noted?
I never put it to the test; always giving-in to the demand
that I must take my place in this cracked world and,
knowing I could return next morning to this private place,
I went and filled the shape that belongs to me.
I try to do the same now November has arrived again,
but the pills are hard to swallow
and the garden light is so slow to come.
EVERYONE KNOWS A GOOD FUNERAL IS BETTER THAN A BAD WEDDING
Strange that this couple should think my presence
will enhance their big day, and stranger still
that the clamp of courtesy is so strong that I showed up.
Let them get married and be in love,
but must I be involved?
There are other things to do on a bright day in May,
besides struggling to hear speeches
that only those in-the-know find amusing.
Besides, I’ve met the groom just once:
he was so drunk he didn’t get my name
right all evening.
From the shoreline there are no ships to be seen,
just an expanse of water which in time
might become a sign for you, or perhaps
their absence is the sign – it all depends
on your interpretation.
Is the missed call from an unknown number
the thing that shaped your day
or does your God provide an explanation?
There will be ships off the coast tomorrow
whether you see them or not.