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“Up here the hours go backwards / and we’re closer to the edge of things.” These lines introduce Gaia Holmes’ meditation on the passage of time with appropriate impossibility. In reality, hours can’t go backwards, but in these poems, they do that and more. We encounter the past as present, and the past as preserved. As we zoom in to the edge between reality and perception, this edge becomes fuzzier and less defined.
The “edge of things” feels crucially ambiguous. These are poems of boundaries and transitions between specific times and places, simultaneously preserved and distorted through memory. They are also poems with an extensive scope. The emotional core of the collection is an intimate account of the poet caring for her father as he approaches death, and from here Holmes moves to discuss modernisation, the mind, belonging in space and time, stewardship, and more, all the while maintaining reverence and intense self-reflection.
Because of their holistic and sporadic nature, the poems are packed full of images, sometimes disparate and surprising, which flash before us and are replaced seconds later. To facilitate this, Holmes tends to repeat a word or phrase that brackets the ideas (“tonight… tonight… tonight”, “it’s… it’s… it’s…”, and in ‘The Hole Room’, “there were holes…”), giving some poems a conspicuously list-like feel.
This repetition can suggest a harmony between methodology and intent. Many of Holmes’ poems have a start point from which they continuously work outwards: not just a phrase, but also a specific moment or place preserved in memory. Holmes writes with immediacy and urgency as if reaching through time to summon these moments in our present.
Ideas crash against one another in these poems. The lines “Now you are bed-bound, / landlocked” equate her father with the space he inhabits, tying the personal to the geographical. One idea quickly bounces into another, and this new idea changes how the rest of the poem (and indeed the collection) can be read.
The relationship between location and identity is examined throughout. ‘In the Pancake Room’ sees the elderly literally become content of their houses, melding with furniture, hanging draped from curtain rails, absorbing golden syrup into their “floury pores”. Here the listing bombards us with surreal and striking scenes, all linked by one central idea. The poet works outwards from a bizarre notion. Elsewhere she works outwards from intimate scenes and places preserved in the amber of her memory. In either case, the ‘reality’ of the poem is dictated by the imagination and memory of the person narrating it.
This is not just a poetic truism, but an enactment of the way individual perception, and by extension identity, might work. In ‘Playing Alive’ Holmes acknowledges that for her dying father the same could be true.
Landlocked in bed, he no longer cares “about the world / beyond his body”, and so retreats into his mind. His fevered dream sees him take “a ten mile run / across the tops of the waves”. This particular image returns us to the collection’s title, where the synthesis of self and location becomes explicit: the road can run out literally, or a person can reach ‘the end of the road’. The road runs out where the land runs out, and in the state, we find him in, our delirious and exhausted jogger has run out of ground and taken to the sea.
What we encounter as surrealism might be better considered a collapse of realism. His perception defines the father’s world, and as his mind begins to fails, this world begins to disintegrate. The ground trembles and whimpers. Hours travel backwards. Holes open up in the ground.