Heather Benning, The Dollhouse
The Dollhouse by Heather Benning, 2014


Rachel Richardson says: ‘A reader’s interaction with a poem is largely created through the collection of images that animate the language and make us feel we have just participated in an experience’. I find that memories in language create the strongest sensory experience for myself as a reader and writer.[1]


In April 2019 I take part in a week long Spring School poetry course at Newcastle University. Wednesday’s tutor, Tara Bergin, tasks us to observe something during our lunch break and write about what we can see. I observe a tall glass of lemonade. The liquid is clear, with bubbles collecting at the brim. A thin curl of lemon floats on the surface like a half-smile. My notes bleed into a first draft. I do not restrict myself to the lemonade I can see, the soft fizz I can hear, the sharp citrus scent, instead I allow the sensory input to trigger other images, stories and most importantly memories to give the poem emotional weight.


Robert Pinsky’s poem ‘Shirt’ seems to follow the same process. Pinsky observes the object; ‘the shirt with nearly invisible stitches along the collar’. The examination becomes a manifestation, ‘the presser, the cutter, the wiring, the mangle’. By the end of the poem, the shirt lives and endures a journey: ‘He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared / and fluttered up from his shirt as he came down’.[2]



The imagist movement called for a return to restrained and precise use of the image.

According to Ezra Pound, image is ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’.[3] I wonder if my poems are fragments of real stories. If so, can nostalgia be strange and disturbing? Reflective nostalgia, defined by Svetlana Boym, ‘meditates on the passage of time and layers of fragments of memory’.[4]


I find a beautiful example of a memory explored in fragments; flickers and flames of a burning dollshouse. ‘The drone builds’ and still it burns.[5] Fragments overlap in a short film Heather and Chad Benning made about the burning; The Dollhouse.


There is a cold crusted winter field. I can see the house; walls growing decay, lace- curtains and a girl’s portrait swirling with red fire. And the same girl’s voice drifting in the lofts where ash dusts the pillows.


Pound describes the excavation of the desired object in a poem as discovering its ‘luminous details’. The details in The Dollhouse are luminous; I can see them and they are on fire.[6] I search for luminous details in my own poems and cup them in my hands in case they melt. When almost gone, I paint over signs of decay to restore the image, to redraft.


[1] Rachel Richardson, ‘Learning Image and Description’ in Poetry Foundation (March 27th 2015)

[2] Robert Pinsky, ‘Shirt’ in The Want Bone (New York: Ecco Press, 1980), p. 53

[3] Ezra Pound, ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ in Poetry, (March 1913), 200

  [4] Svetlana Boym, ‘Nostalgia and its Discontents’ in The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic, 2001). p. 22

[5] Sheri Benning, ‘Dollhouse on Fire’ in PN Review, 45.4 (March – April 2019), 62-67

[6] Pound, ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, 200



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