Episode 31

The Room Between Us 

by Denise Saul

 

Denise Saul reads ‘The Room Between Us’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

The Room Between Us by Denise Saul

The Room Between Us book cover

Available from:

The Room Between Us is available from:

The publisher: Pavilion Poetry, Liverpool University Press

Oxford University Press (US)

Bookshop.org: UK |US

 

The Room Between Us

by Denise Saul

There you are, beside the telephone stand,
waiting for me in a darkened room
when I force open the white door.
There you lie, behind it.

I never found out why you grabbed
a pewter angel instead of the receiver
when you tried to call me that morning.
I give up trying to lift you from the floor

as the room is no longer between us.
You point again to the Bible, door, wall
before I whisper, It’s alright, alright,
now tell me what happened before the fall.


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Denise, where did this poem come from?

Denise: This poem came from my experience as a caregiver for my mother, who I was caring for. And she experienced a stroke and aphasia. And aphasia is a communication disability affecting the speech centres of the brain. And it was during that space that I occupied that I couldn’t understand silence. I didn’t know how to capture silence in my writing, because I was really pushed to write poetry about the experience of caregiving, the experience of trauma. And I couldn’t find the right words to capture that experience. And this poem, actually, was one of the most difficult poems to write, in the sense that it refused to arrive. At the start, when I was writing all the poems for the collection, it didn’t persist, it didn’t want to make itself known.

And I tried to write about the experience of finding the collapsed body, and I use the lyric form to do so, and it just didn’t work. And I think it’s, the whole reasoning behind it was the use of the eye, and the use of all the senses of the body. And it just pushed me closer to the situation, and I just couldn’t harness the traumatic experience of finding silence, of being in a space which wasn’t lit, of seeing the bodily experience of brain trauma. And it was only towards the end, when I was actually bringing the collection together, and it’s at that stage, you know when, as a poet, you need three or four poems just to complete that collection.

Mark: Mm-hmm.

Denise: And this poem arrived. And it arrived not quietly, but quite loudly.

Mark: Oh, really?

Denise: Yes. It stormed into the room, and it set up a dialogue with all the other poems. And I knew the title of that poem would be the title of the collection. And I knew that this poem had to be the first poem in the collection, because I wanted my mother’s voice to have a presence, and have space within the collection. And I didn’t want my voice to overtake her bodily experience. So, that poem had to be the first poem that the reader saw, and absorbed and read.

Mark: Well, I can hear that certainty in your voice now. And, you know, it was a surprise to me when you said it didn’t come easily and it was one of the last ones, because, of course, it is the title poem of the collection, and it really just starts the book, and almost sets out its stall. And everything else, I think you read almost in the light of this, or with this one vibrating through it. So, what was it like, that experience, when it stormed into the room? Because normally, you know, poets don’t describe poems as arising that dramatically, so I’m curious.

Denise: That poem landed on the page. There was hardly any editing needed. And that’s why I’m using that verb, ‘stormed.’ The only editing that was needed was in terms of the spacing. Because it basically consists of three verses.

Mark: Yeah.

Denise: Which are four lines, or quatrains. So, 12 lines. And the original layer of that poem was one verse, so one block verse. And it was felt towards the editing stage that it just needed those two spacings between the fourth line and the eighth line, just to have the poem make a conversation, with the spacing around the page, and around it. And with that spacing, actually created this kind of different stages of actually finding a collapsed body in a room. And that’s what was needed. I think poets sometimes we can focus so much in the editing on the words, and making each word count, but actually, it’s the spacing that is in conversation and pressurizing the poem, the margins, and the actual spacing between the lines. And I just love lineation and syntax. So, for me, it was a joy to play with the poem. But, as I said, the poem didn’t need hardly any editing. It was just a case of allowing that poem to breathe, and to insert the spacing inside that poem.

Mark: And I think that’s a really great point because, you know, one of the definitions of poetry, or at least verse rather than prose, is that there is the white space on the page, that is, if you like, in conversation with the printed words, which you don’t get in prose. And that white space has been often compared to silence. And I’d like to go back to a phrase you used just now when you described it. You talked about ’the traumatic experience of finding silence’. And obviously, I can see what you mean in terms of the mother-daughter relationship, but also, maybe is there something for the poet, that there is something frightening about silence?

Denise: I think for a poet, there’s something frightening about the blank page! [Laughter] And I think it ought to be embraced, actually. We can just always focus on the ink, but what about the spaces where there isn’t any ink? Isn’t there a conversation taking place? And I think, for me, that was really a potent aspect to pulling the collection together, of using the prose poetry form as well.

Mark: Yes.

Denise: Just to pressurize the words, and pressurize the lines. I love putting the poem under pressure and seeing how it reacts. And I think that’s where the beauty of poetry lies, is in that. And I always like to read fiction alongside reading poetry, or looking at different other kinds of syntax and constructions of lines and sentences, because that helps me to order the energy of the poems, the energy within the poems. And coming back to what you were saying about the blank aspects on the page, there’s a lot of energy in there, and I just wanted this conversation to take place, just as with my mother’s experience of her not able to verbally communicate, to acknowledge that she was communicating, but in a different way. So, with other parts of the body, if you gesture or point.

Mark: Yeah.

Denise: And, for me, this whole process of writing this first poem really made me understand what silence is, and how the writer can be, feel threatened by it. And there’s really no need to feel threatened by a blank page.

Mark: Wow. And also, reading the whole collection, you know, you’ve really described very beautifully the relationship between yourself and your mother when words couldn’t always be relied on. So, other forms of communication were needed. And again, I kept thinking about poetry, that negotiation between words and silence, or other, kind of, non-linear use of language.

Denise: I think we also sometimes forget that poetry is music. And music has silence, has the breaks in between the notes, and so on. And that’s necessary. I think, you know, the silence is a space for contemplation and reflecting on what has been said and what has been realized. And it’s necessary to have that in a poem, and for the poem itself to be in conversation with that blank aspect. Because I think it’s when the mind is still, it’s a stillness that happens in the silence, in the spaces where there aren’t any of the text there, any residue of the text. And I think it’s, for me, it was a period of growth, to pull together these poems, to allow them to enter this room. Because in fact, this collection is centred around the house. So, with some of the prose poems, which are shaped almost like rooms…

Mark: Yes.

Denise: You know, the word ‘stanza’ means ‘room’ in Italian. It’s just having that space recognized, and allowing it to be recognized. Because as a carer, I was in the house, and was occupying rooms, because my space was restricted, just as my mother’s space was restricted. So, by playing with the form, by using prose poems, it actually pressurizes the whole of the page, the experience, and centres around the body, which I feel is really quite fascinating.

Mark: And obviously, the poem is called ‘The Room Between Us,’ which means the collection is called The Room Between Us. And, you know, rereading it again this morning, I was noticing… So, the poem is called ‘The Room Between Us,’ but when you actually step into the room, so to speak, in the poem, the way it appears is the room is no longer between us.

Denise: Yes. Yes. Because there is a period within that situation where the room, the physical aspects of the room, was a barrier.

Mark: Right.

Denise: And then, as the situation progressed, there was no longer this space. There was this, I suppose, a kind of closeness that happened between the bodies as well. So, you know, the room can mean literally a physical room.

Mark: Yeah.

Denise: Or the room, that space. And it’s just that play on that aspect. And there’s also the room around, the spacing around the home as well. And then the verse as well, so there’s, like, rooms within the room, within a room.

Mark: Yes. Yeah, I mean, there’s quite a lot of objects in this room. You’ve got the telephone stand and the white door, the pewter angel, receiver, Bible, and so on. And there’s quite a lot of trying to connect but not being able to, like ‘Waiting for me, forcing open the door, I never found out why you tried to call me,’ and so on. It’s really, there’s a lot of drama in this small space, isn’t there?

Denise: There is. And I wanted to address the body in the room. So, you know, started off with ‘There you are,’ implies this kind of searching for, you know, this person. And originally, in my head, I was going to write there ‘I,’ you know. And then I thought, no, it has to be addressed. It has to be a form of address in that poem, and it has to start off that way. I also wanted to play around with that whole polarity with light and dark, because that scenario was situated in darkness. And so, with the rest of the collection, there is that repetition of light.

Mark: Yes. Yes.

Denise: And I wanted that to be obvious, and I wanted to play around with those two aspects of light, and the spectrum, you know, because I always think darkness is light that hasn’t a chance to recognize itself. So I wanted to have that within the first verse of this light and dark aspect, and the balancing that needed to take place throughout this whole experience.

Mark: That’s a terrific phrase. Darkness is light that hasn’t had a chance to recognize itself.

Denise: Yes. And I think, you know, that’s, in the chance, is replicated in terms of, you know, we go back to the white page. And I think people can be, as a writer, more terrified of a white page than a page which is filled with, like, black ink. But with the poem in itself, I wanted to create a balance of two extremes, in terms of colour, in terms of experiences. And that adds to the drama of this particular poem.

Mark: And can we focus on the ending a little? Because I think there’s quite a lot of weight on that final phrase, ‘before the fall,’ isn’t there?

Denise: There is. There is.

Mark: Particularly with the Bible, just a couple of lines away.

Denise: Yeah. There are some references to spirituality and mysticism in the whole collection. Mainly because of the spiritual aspects of my mother. And I wanted to harness that, but ‘before the fall’ actually has so many different connotations.

Mark: Yes.

Denise: You know, and I wanted that to be the final word. From the dressing, the body, the person, to this fall, what happens in the fall? Just in the terms of the, in Biblical terms, Fall?

Mark: Yeah.

Denise: In terms of, like, the fall in language, the bodily experience of the fall. And within the collection itself, within the poems, there is that kind of movement from higher to lower, in terms of the drama of the experience. Because I wanted to treat my mother’s experience as a character that moves a particular arc, and that’s how I treat my subject in my collections, is to…or in my work. There has to be movement. There has to be a movement in terms of the persons, or the character, the voice’s development. And so, for me, that fall, it ends with that word, ‘fall,’ but what we see later on is the actual progression and development that happens, almost like a rehabilitation in a way.

Mark: Right. So we get after the fall as well, because obviously ‘before the fall’ suggests lost innocence and wanting to go back. But actually, there’s a lot of richness after the fall, as well, in the book.

Denise: Yes. Yes. And there is, I suppose, a sense of maturity and, you know, with the fall, there is a sense of there’s this idea of the loss of innocence. And in some ways, you could connect that to the whole experience, which is held within the collection itself.

Mark: Yeah. And this is one of the very few instances of rhyme in the collection, isn’t it?

Denise: Yes. Yes.

Mark: Could you say something about that?

Denise: Yeah. It wasn’t intentional. It just happened, you know. I don’t set out and think to myself, ‘Okay, this must rhyme and this must rhyme.’

Mark: Sure, sure.

Denise: It just happens. And, you know, there are some half-rhymes in some of the poems and… But it just felt right to have that there.

Mark: Absolutely. It felt…because it gives extra weight to the phrase, and particularly in the context that you’re not rhyming and chiming all the way through, is just an extra little bit of ‘pay attention to this.’ And also, I couldn’t help noticing, I won’t give away any spoilers, but the final poem in the collection also ends with a rhyme, and it’s the same rhyming sound.

Denise: Yes.

Mark: And it just, that felt like a lovely little, just echo, and a resonating chime to close the collection as well. And it’s quite daring to just do it at the beginning and the end, and hardly at all in the middle.

Denise: I know. And it’s funny how the mind works. I think, as a poet, as a writer, so we can think to ourselves, ‘Oh, okay. I’m going to do this. I’m going to set out to do that with a poem.’ But I believe the poem has a high intelligence, and it knows what it is, it knows what it wants to be. And we should just… I just let the poem dictate to me, rather than me dictating to the poem what it should be. With this poem, it told me what it wanted to be, and would not fit in any other form. I originally wanted the whole collection to be in lyrical form. And lyrical form did not want to step into the room. But, when I wrote this poem towards the end of the collection, pulling it together, that form felt that it should stay and be part of the collection.

Mark: It takes a bit of maturity, doesn’t it, to get to the point where you let the poem do what it wants, rather than what you would like it to do, or what your idea is of how it should be.

Denise: Yes, yes. Because I think we forget that, you know, the poem itself, to me, is organic. It’s never static. It’s always moving, and it grows. And there are certain aspects, certain layers that I don’t see. And it’s only the reader that comes to me and says, ‘Oh, have you noticed this, or this is happening?’ And there’s that sense of realization, ‘Oh, I didn’t notice that,’ or, ‘that’s just happened with the poem.’

Mark: Yeah.

Denise: Sometimes, you know, through reading out aloud, in front of audiences, you realize, ‘Oh, actually, this is what the poem is doing as well. I didn’t notice that before on the page.’

Mark: Yeah.

Denise: And to me, that gives me great joy when I’m writing the poems.

Mark: It’s the magical thing about poetry, isn’t it? It knows more than we do.

Denise: Exactly. Exactly. I think as well, I was influenced… One of my go-to writers, a US writer, is Lyn Hejinian, and her collection, My Life. And that collection is a whole series of prose poems. But what it does, it, she very much centres on the line, and what the line gives in the poem. And I’ve tried to follow that lead when writing this poem and the other poems in the collection. I think it’s really important to look at the syntax. Sometimes we can just look at the form, but actually, the syntax is really important. One of my mentors, Mimi Khalvati, she always sort of talks about the syntax and how it can reveal the mind of the poet.

Mark: Yes, yes. ‘The shape of the thought,’ I think she said to us once.

Denise: Exactly.

Mark: Yes. We’ve both graduated from Mimi. Yeah, it’s absolutely true, isn’t it? That it’s easy to look at the shape of the poem, and from the kind of poetic form side of things, but it’s where it intersects with the syntax is very often where interesting things happen.

Denise: And I think the most exciting things happen there as well, you know. It can actually, I think, push the energy of the poem. And I think with this poem, I really try to make the energy work. So, you know, the energy of that poem is quite fast, and yet quite slow. And then, you know, you have the space in between that actually puts the energy on some kind of a break. And then it starts up again, and then it stops and then it starts again. And I really wanted to allow the power of the poem to drive the narrative, the syntax to drive the narrative of that poem.

Mark: And I’m curious, because you said that this one arrived late, and it changed the way you saw the rest of the collection. What were the implications for the rest of the manuscript? Did you move things around? Did you change things?

Denise: I think it was more that there was more of a conversation between the poems. Once this poem arrived, then all the other poems started to shout. Before, they were just talking very quietly. So this poem was almost like a conductor in a way, and it just kind of regulated the volume. I think that’s what it did within this sequence of poems.

Mark: That’s a lovely image, isn’t it, for a title poem, the conductor? Because it really does change, you know, if you’ve got a really strong title and title poem, the way the… Like, it influences the way all the others perform.

Denise: Totally. Because if I put this poem in the middle, you know, there was this idea, okay, maybe I should put it in the middle, because it’s going to be the title of the collection. And then I looked at the poem again and I thought, ‘No. It needs to be the first in the collection,’ because it has to, so to speak, open the door, and allow the other poems through.

Mark: Beautiful. Well, thank you, Denise. I think that’s a nice point to open the door again and hear the poem once more.

Denise: Thank you.


 

The Room Between Us

by Denise Saul

There you are, beside the telephone stand,
waiting for me in a darkened room
when I force open the white door.
There you lie, behind it.

I never found out why you grabbed
a pewter angel instead of the receiver
when you tried to call me that morning.
I give up trying to lift you from the floor

as the room is no longer between us.
You point again to the Bible, door, wall
before I whisper, It’s alright, alright,
now tell me what happened before the fall.


 

The Room Between Us

‘The Room Between Us’ by Denise Saul is from her latest collection The Room Between Us, published by Pavilion Poetry, Liverpool University Press.

The Room Between Us book cover

The Room Between Us is available from:

The publisher: Pavilion Poetry, Liverpool University Press

Oxford University Press (US)

Bookshop.org: UK |US

Denise Saul

Denise Saul portrait photo

Denise Saul is the author of two pamphlets. White Narcissi (Flipped Eye Publishing) was Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice and House of Blue (Rack Press) was a PBS Pamphlet Recommendation. She is the recipient of the Poetry Society’s Geoffrey Dearmer Prize for her poem ‘Leaving Abyssinia’. Her first full-length collection, The Room Between Us, is a Poetry Book Society Summer Recommendation 2022.

DeniseSaul.co.uk

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

You can have a full transcript of every new episode sent to you via email.

The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

Listen to the show

You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Related Episodes

The Sun Rising by John Donne

Episode 40 The Sun Rising by John Donne Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne.Poet John DonneReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessThe Sun Rising by John Donne         Busy old fool, unruly Sun,        Why dost thou thus,Through...

At Peckham Rye by Clare Pollard

Episode 39 At Peckham Rye by Clare Pollard  Clare Pollard reads ‘At Peckham Rye’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.This poem is from: Incarnation by Clare PollardAvailable from: Incarnation is available from: The publisher: Bloodaxe Books Amazon: UK |...

In an Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti

Episode 38 In an Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ by Christina Rossetti.Poet Christina RossettiReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessIn an Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti One face looks out from...

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

thirteen − six =

Arts Council England logo