Drawing the Line by Diana Bishop

Spanning more than thirty years of writing and weighing in at over one hundred pages, Diana Bishop's first collection reads more like a retrospective than a debut. Arranged by theme (Love, War, Death, etc.) these poems range from poignant to hilarious, formal to plain-spoken, casting a keen and deeply sensitive eye over a world where politeness reigns supreme.

As first poet in residence at Keats' House, Hampstead, Diana also brings an ear well-tuned to the traditions of verse. Lighter rhymes such as "Mr Miller's Mistress" and "A Suitable Shell for Treatment" careen toward couplet punchlines such as "Now we're very fond of Brighton and the place is sadly missed. / But you can't enjoy your holiday with your tortoise round the twist." They are sure to please an audience when read aloud.

But equally exciting are narrative poems attuned to social irony, such as the "Sachertorte" served at a fine restaurant, which is "dark, rich, thick and jammy / (rather like my friend...)" The friend, dressed to the nines and unapologetically snooty, is incensed when the waiter serves a larger slice to "a bag lady, a crone". The speaker in the poem delights in the possible reasons, deciding finally that "Sacher's tea room regains my esteem / catching the waiter's eye, I grin at him."

In "Famous Photograph", Bishop takes up themes of innocence and experience in spare, direct language. Whereas a poem like "You and I are Disappearing" by Yusef Komunyakaa makes art from the same difficult imagery through lavish and searing metaphor, Bishop's approach is equally haunting for its careful reserve. Child-on-lap, the speaker's coffee table book chances to open on Nick Ut's famous photograph of the napalm attack on Trang Bang. The cuddled child assumes that the naked children fleeing in the photograph are "playing games" and "soft-nailed, points." The speaker corrects him, saying only that this is "not a game" and then frightens him "with too tight an embrace."

These poems move carefully and thoughtfully through the difficult terrain of the human psyche. Steeped in Englishness, they also speak volumes by omission. They treat, on decidedly British terms, what the American author William Faulkner described as the most important theme in literature: "The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself."

Drawing the line is now available from The Brewster Press.

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