Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

On ‘Moving Day’ by Jenny King

cover image of moving day by jenny king


Regina Weinert
“Jenny King was born in London during the Blitz and wrote poetry from childhood”, start the short biographical notes in King’s second and third pamphlets, Tenants and Midsummer, published by smith-doorstop in 2014 and 2020 respectively. Her first pamphlet, Letting the Dark Through, appeared in 1981 from the Mandeville Press. Fortunately, we now have her collected poems to enjoy, Moving Day (Carcanet, 2021), over one hundred pages that chronicle a long life of experiencing, observing and reflecting. Most of the poems from her three pamphlets are gathered here, with many more from her sustained writing across the years, up to the present day.


King’s work says something profound to me about trying to live a humane life in all its entanglements, especially with the past. The poems have the voice of an elder, who is in turn wise, uncertain, sad, troubled, open, curious, youthful and playful – not distanced, but inhabiting the scenes she describes and generously letting us in. The poems are accessible, their tone is personal and conversational: they invite the reader to be open to layered meanings. They also convey faith in writing and a delight in verbal expression. ‘Walking Through Slack’ opens the collection:


The village street tips me out into the hills.
I watch the clouds canter on slopes far off,
on crests of the grassy mountains.
The midday peace is warm and edible.

Slackening pace at the lane’s top, I see
the circle of the world.
Wonderful, the great presences of land
the sun is making play with

and wonderful in the mind how thoughts that lay
like stones in a dark landscape
moving at last
prepare themselves for speech.


The poem’s third stanza homes in on details of the internal landscape yet to be explored. The surprising image of stones fits solidly into the poem’s scenery and adds import to the clouds that “canter” in the second line. King achieves an intimate relationship between life and art, mediated by thought.


Giving voice to thoughts is work and it is releasing. King shows an undiminishing zest for the endeavour. She knows how to choose verbs to get poems moving: “The village street tips me out into the hills”. Whatever the “I” is tipped out from, there is potential for liberation. This poem echoes through the collection: more properties of stones are revealed.


In the second poem, ‘Rockery’, a neighbour advises the poet what to “grow there”, but her mind “is unrolling the word”. She then finds herself in a painful wartime childhood memory, where she is playing “among sharp-edged rockery stones”. This is the background: war and deep personal loss of twin siblings, a child’s experiences that surface decades later. ‘Milk’, the third poem, begins:


War’s end:
we were resuming, in a shadowy world,
the burden of peace;
patiently, patiently beginning.


The “burden of peace” recalls the last lines of Brecht’s 1949 poem ‘Wahrnehmung’ (‘A Realization’). Yet ‘resuming’ implies so much more of the historical, social and personal. In King’s poem the young child learns the meaning of milk at school: “milk, white among dampness / waited for playtime”, and peace is not “like a favourite pudding”, but “cold and necessary like milk”. The poem powerfully captures the early post-war years in Britain and the sacrifices made, where “Single planes overhead at night / droned like speeches”. The unspeakable hovers at the edge, as does Paul Celan’s “Schwarze Milch” (black milk) from his poem ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Deathfugue’).


From these beginnings, life moves outwards. King’s poems are rooted in the everyday, past and present, family, history, and in the natural world, which she relates to the conditions humans find themselves in and are responsible for. The setting is mostly England but extends to Europe and beyond. Place names are frequent, impressing a sense of belonging – for good or ill. Themes of time and change link the poems. They are delicately invoked in ‘Midsummer’:


At the stair corner where it turns for the attic
a shaft of sunlight strikes the step – only in June

The swifts swooping under the eaves to a hidden nest
keep this a family house. [...]
I watch the infant rowan berries bob in the breeze
and I sit for a moment on the attic stairs
to consider this year in its fulness
before it slips away, one step at a time.


Despite the fragility and transitoriness of life, a sense of repleteness is acknowledged. The human is placed lightly within cycles of nature. There is a subtle sequence of ‘i’ sounds, matching the year’s slipping away. The poem is opened further by two adjectives: “a hidden nest” and “infant rowan berries”. It encompasses many perspectives.


Much is carried by King’s choice of verbs. Quoting individual lines doesn’t do them full justice since they energise whole poems or stanzas, but here are a few examples: “canvassers foraging for votes” (‘Milk’); “a squirrel fossicks in the rain” (‘Moving Day’); “children dispersing into middle-age” (‘Stag Beetle’); “What are they [the words] doing, fidgeting in my skull? (‘The Words’).


Frequent use of adjectives and adverbs is part of King’s poetics. They serve her currents of thought, her external and internal conversations and her precise descriptions. They may offer a singular perception: “attention” is “pulled thinly sideways” (‘Point of Balance’); or they delight with the richness of the image: “We in our duffled youth ran laughing”, (‘To the Round Pond’). At other times, they blend sound, music and imagery: darkness “trickles insidiously”, (‘Shepherd Wheel’).


Many poems are concerned with the nature of memory and a fragmentary grasp of the past. ‘Family history’ begins with “A pond, described, shines in my memory”, and ends with “the half-knowledge / that is sure of a real pond somewhere / a glimmering place. In ‘Goat’ King observes:


[...] sometimes
memory’s not a wisp of falling water
but a small, unexpected, solid thing.


However partial, selective or uncertain perception and knowledge may be, the poems, through their fully-furnished scenes, give recognition to presence and existence. And while there is an underlying melancholic note of impermanence, the scenes themselves attain continuity because their materiality is vivid and foregrounded. ‘Cornelian Cherry’ is another example, where “fistfuls of yellow sparklers reached towards me”, even though the tree has “vanished among the thickets / of how things used to be”.


King’s poems have a smooth, natural rhythm and flow. Recurring images, especially of stones, clouds, water, reflections, light, dark and shadows, give the collection cohesion, while the range of subjects is wide. Certain words echo repeatedly, but subtly. Repetition is never replication. There is a sense of one, dynamic, mind at work, across different selves, places and times. This is the value of a collection that spans a long life, but it also stems from how the mind works – not in strict linear, chronological fashion. The sequencing of poems is accepting of this without being disorienting.


I can open the collection on any page and I will stay there. The poems have ballast and are steadying in the way they take notice. They often convey a longing for peace of mind. Yet above all, Jenny King’s poetry is filled with bursts of life, and with unique gifts of thought and language:


The Cows

In the middle of the night the cows came
breathing their hay-breath into the silent kitchen
and I, turning in my cold bed above,

was also there among them – felt their motherly warmth,
saw their shadowed flanks, gleam of damp muzzles,
sensed the flick of their tails across the cupboards.

Companionable silence. So I slept,
woke with the light, looked out and saw the herd
leaving in a slow walk over the meadow.