Caught by the River


6th May 2018

Poet and travel writer Paul Hyland reviews Pam Zinnemann-Hope’s Foothold, published by Ward Wood. 

It was hard to see how Pam Zinnemann-Hope would follow her previous book, On Cigarette Papers. That volume, published in 2012 and adapted for BBC Radio 4 in 2014, is a masterpiece. It is a colloquy, in a number of voices, which dramatizes and debates her German Jewish/Nazi history in intimate terms, allowing us what I have characterised as ‘essential insights into a wounded century and its personal legacy.’

Now we can see where Zinnemann-Hope has come. Her new book Foothold is a collection firmly set in West Dorset, decades later, at home with her husband, the composer Peter Hope. It makes a kind of sense to say that On Cigarette Papers was written by Pam Zinnemann and Foothold by Pam Hope.

Her terroir is one she shares, inescapably, with Thomas Hardy, whose poetry and prose provide epigraphs to the poems ‘Hawthorn’, ‘Visit’ and ‘Threshold’. However, whereas Hardy’s territory is overseen by a malign Destiny, her landscape, with the creatures and characters that inhabit it, is to be revelled in and cherished at a time of climate change and environmental stress.

Zinnemann-Hope sets the bar high for herself; she prefaces her new collection with a poem by Hardy. It is a perfect choice because it introduces themes central to Foothold. In June 1915 Thomas and his wife Florence visited the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, where they examined the plaster cast of a fossil archaeopteryx. Hardy’s poem ‘In a Museum’ brilliantly conflates the experience of looking at the specimen with that of a concert the poet had attended the previous night. He imagines ‘the coo of this ancient bird’ blending with a contralto voice ‘in the full-fugued song of the universe unending.’

Zinnemann-Hope attends to the voices she hears in the world around her, the small valley where she lives and a large universe in which she observes ‘A Particular Bee’, the hawthorn, the little egret, snowdrops and the ‘Perseids’. She too grapples with the measure of things: geological timescale, prehistory, lifespan, musical tempo, and the endless movement from winter to spring, summer, autumn, and again winter.

Foothold begins with snow, or rather the anticipation of it. ‘They Tell Us It Will Come Tonight’ offers a brief introduction to the territory, to ‘our valley’, to a husband’s presence, ‘our’ and ‘us’, and to the poet’s grandson Henry, here entranced ‘by the wide world of my dressing gown, / its white fields, his first snow.’ The second poem, ‘Night Song’, is the first of a number of tough, delicate love poems scattered through the book. While her love sleeps beside her she remembers how as a younger man he strode ahead of her.

Now time has slowed your pace
against mine. Count
one stride to a decade,
unstoppable walking; you’re always
one and a half great strides ahead

my long lived love.

Throughout this collection Zinnemann-Hope employs just such strong, sensuous metaphors; they seem simple at first, but a second reading reveals their richness. She cracks rocks open to discover rare creatures. We hear the voice of the proto-feminist fossil hunter Mary Anning addressing her dead father. We sense the profound tsunami that overtook Scelidosaurus and provoked us to find it a name. We meditate on the artist, the tools and materials, that put a bison on the wall of ‘Cave’. We marvel at ‘The Stone Balancer’s Secret’:

No tricks?

Only the trick
that gravity pulls.

The poet has her secrets too: the way, in short poems that pop up between the longer ones, she balances words lightly, one upon another, to exploit their weight.

A number of the poems have been set to music, and music seeps into others to great effect. ‘The Musicologist And the Birdwatcher’ proposes a wicked sequel to a po-faced television documentary about the musicality of the lark and the attentiveness of Beethoven. ‘3 Liszt Études’ i.m. Molly, is a witty, precisely choreographed piece for a dog playing with a stick in an ample universe. In ‘When Brendel Appears At Plush’ we see one who, like the writer, ‘feels the measure of every note / and weighs each pause…’ I’ll resist quoting more of the poem for fear of spoiling its dénouement.

The book’s title – ‘foothold’ – occurs just once, in ‘This’. Here is the whole poem:

This place, this patch of the valley
has nurtured us for years.

Some days
the trees shake a little
and the river roars,
wanting us
to loosen our foothold.

Keeping a foothold means safety and losing it spells peril. Is it climate change or age that challenges it? Another reviewer has suggested that the poem is fighting talk, a determination not to be dislodged. This, I believe, is a misreading. Railing against change and age and loss would be sentimental, whereas what Zinnemann-Hope expresses here and elsewhere in this collection is an acceptance that one’s foothold cannot but be loosened.

One of the finest poems, ‘You’re Almost Facing Me’, starts with her husband being examined in a curtained cubicle, while Zinnemann-Hope sits watching and is reminded of Lucien Freud’s painting, ‘Painter Working. Reflection’. Her portrait of her husband is tender and exact. Her analysis of her own thoughts is moving and unforgiving. Deep feeling overtakes her and she arrives at a simple conclusion:

You’ve had all this life with me
and I see how your skin conveys
your body’s history, the drawing
of each breath, how each heartbeat’s
measured in creases of flesh.

Zinnemann-Hope is a glass-half-full poet. Her realism is tempered by hope; she looks forward, she anticipates, she sings, in ‘16mm…’ ‘We’ll keep on dancing…’ She began the book by anticipating snow at the year’s end or beginning. She ends it with ‘First Snow’. This is a book which repays reading and re-reading.


Foothold, published by Ward Wood, is out now and available here.

Visit Paul’s website here.