In her Preface, Urquhart describes these stories as her first forays into fiction. As a poet, she had begun to find that her interest in narrative and “subtle explorations of character” demanded a different, more expansive form. She says, “I found that there was not enough physical space in a single lyric poem for what I wanted to say, and not enough breadth for me to get to know what I needed to learn.” Even narrative poetry proved insufficient, and I found it amusing that her first story is about Robert Browning.
I’ve been interested in writers who work in both genres—Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Hardy, to name just a few—exploring what they choose to write as poems and what as fiction. For myself, I sometimes write a story as a poem first, or perhaps after the first draft. By identifying what in the story creates the “concentrated resonance” Joanna Hirschfield attributes to Japanese poetry, I understand better how to focus the story.
I have remarked before how poetic Urquhart’s prose is. These stories, however, hover between poetry and prose, using the syntax and imagery of poetry within the narrative structure of fiction. Her imaginative leaps and way of telling it “slant”, as Emily Dickinson famously said, result in stories that are sometimes like dreams, mysterious and moving in indefinable ways. Some of them reminded me of Italo Calvino’s cities.
Other stories experiment with shifts in time. In “Forbidden Dances”, a woman remembers visiting her grandmother, moving back and forth between childhood memories, present-day adulthood, adolescence, her grandmother’s death. Urquhart eschews the usual structure of a present-day frame containing a chronological flashback, yet I was never uncertain as to when each scene was taking place. The scenes build from the grandmother’s story to her best friend’s story and then into the narrator’s story, all of them interpenetrating and illuminating each other.
The physical setting is important too. In the grandmother’s kitchen, the south window faces the fields of the farm where she spent her adult life, fields now worked by her son, while the north window faces the hill that was the scene of her childhood. I had the sense of an entire life contained in this single room, where she sits in her rocker working at a piece of appliquéd patchwork. Outside is a small wood with a creek which fills the narrator’s imagination. Hirschfield describes some poems as having a “painterly quality, the use of outward presentation to hold inner meaning” which perfectly captures Urquhart’s accomplishment. The first book of Urquhart’s that I read was The Underpainter and her partner is an artist whom I’ve mentioned here, making the quote even more apt.
This story is also a good example of how Urquhart uses imagery and colors to build character and theme. The grandmother, whose father forbade her to dance and insisted she do needlework, spends her time embroidering ladies in pastel gowns who look as though they are preparing to go to a dance. Given her lack of skill, the narrator notes that “the stitches that held them together were unlikely to endure long enough to get them there.” The specificity of imagery and the attention to word choice in this and the other stories add to their power and demonstrate the poet’s skill.