POEMS THAT TOOK OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD #6: The Registrar’s Office

You can read ‘The Registrar’s Office’ by Karen McCarthy Woolf here. 

The more I read the more I realise I especially like poems which push you onto a conveyor belt and let you leap off at the end but leave you with the sense that the poem will go on without you – that the poet is still speaking even if you are no longer listening.  So no grand ending or build up or overly managed conclusion. You have a sensation of overhearing the whole thing and so feel strangely privileged.

The Registrar’s Office is a poem that comes in waves – first bitter, almost self-flagellating anger (‘loved up like the other mothers’); then an interlude of calm with the registrar and the ‘paper cone of iced water’ (just the right amount of detail). Then single syllables ramp up the speed (‘how her name was Lydia too, that / it was so quick and now this’) as the poem spirals into its nightmarish vision ‘of hell in a shopping centre’. Each wave is like a different part of grief; both this particular grief and perhaps grief generally.

The poem is tightly controlled but its rapid enjambment gives us a sense of overflow and chaos. The final few lines perform an act of transference which is perfectly executed. I love the slightly flustered, passionate repetition of ‘that’s not right’. The switch from ‘you’ (‘I will get you a window’) to ‘she’ (‘she’s a good person with a good heart’) gives us a sense of the narrator in motion; leaving the office and talking now perhaps to her partner or someone else; rambling almost – like she’s being gently guided out but is fired up by a new cause, a place to put her grief. The tone is conversational but still manages to work on two levels – the slightly off-kilter ‘when I get out of here’ allow us to infer (I inferred, anyway) that the poet is talking about her own grief again; she too will find ‘a window’ in time.

The poet leaves it there as we leave the office with her – but any hint of hopeful conclusion is so subtle that we still have that sense of the narrative continuing. In thirty four lines the poet has showed us the different forms grief can take; how it evolves and changes but doesn’t fade in a linear way – waves, rather than stages.

Buy Karen McCarthy Woolf’s book An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, 2014) here.

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