I knew Kate Wilson back in the late 2000s, when we met at a creative writing group, a fact which functions both as full disclosure and as the reason I was so intrigued to hear that her first collection of poetry was coming out. One Night in January is a set of twenty-two poems about a love affair, with an epigraph from Philip Larkin, declaring that “There has been too much moonlight and self-pity:/ Let us have done with it: for now at last/ Never has sun more boldly paced the sky,/ Never were hearts more eager to be free”.
The first poem, “Put this to bed”, strikes the major mood, moving from the apparent imperative of the title to the hedging of the opening lines: “I know there’ll come a time/ when I have to put this to bed”. The occupatio, in which the lines discuss relinquishing the subject, and thus keep the subject in view, also gives a sense of the collection’s handling of its theme. It’s both a set of poems about a love affair and one about the act of remembering, not to mention the act of writing about it. This puts it firmly in the mainstream of love poetry in modern English, since Wyatt, Sidney and Donne, as signalled by the reference in the same poem to the prospect of giving up on reading Shakespeare and Rosetti. (Not to mention by the pun inherent in the idea of “putting this to bed”.)
One Night in January also shares features with another other tradition of lyrics about love: the singer-songwriter album. I think this comes from its focus on the memories of a single relationship, the way we discover more details about the couple and their situation as the sequence continues, and the fact that the beloved is apparently himself a musician and composer. The resulting interplay of character and lyric, in which poems are reflections on a particular emotional state but also part of a dramatic sequence, has something of Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morisette or Taylor Swift.
Though very different in style, there is definitely something about the handling of sound in the poems which also recalls modern song lyrics. The poems tend to avoid end-rhyme, but quite a few use assonance and internal rhyme to striking effect, throwing echoes around inside the lines. The lines about poets from “Put this to bed” provide an example: “when I’ll have to stop reading/ Shakespeare and Rosetti/ pack away confetti and roses”. The most elaborate version of this comes in “Hare”, which uses full-rhyme, half-rhyme, and the faintest end-echoes (“ears erect/ Listen, he would have said” to produce a deconstructed sonnet.
The best of the collection, I think, comes when these two traditions of lyric-writing come together. There are passages, particularly near the end of poems, which produce the kind of turn which signals a song winding up like a chord change coming around (but which I can’t pin down to a rhythmic or sound effect.) There are lines which sound as if they already have a musical setting, from the bouncy rockabilly of “You buy me dinner like a bonafide first date” (“Dual aspect”) to the Tin Pan Alley jazz of “You left me bereft, heartsick/ a little less myself/ or maybe more” (“Bereft). There’s even a direct quotation from Dylan (in “Words”) and some apparent hymnody wordplay: “as though ages of rock might crack open” (“Mount Esja”). I think the less successful moments happen when the poems lean too heavily on the atmosphere of one tradition or the other, or when the styles clash.
One Night in January is a really enjoyable collection, and one which demonstrates a real talent for lyric poetry, and a deeply enviable skill at turning a telling line. It’s also only two quid on Kindle – thoroughly recommend!
One Night in January, Kate Wilson (Wild Pressed Books: 2021)