Informative message

Access your eBook by downloading the Glassboxx app and typing in the email address you used for the order. Find more information on our About Ebooks page.


A Second Whisper

Lynne Hjelmgaard
Publication Date: 
Monday, September 30, 2019
Average: 1 (1 vote)

"The pictures that Hjelmgaard paints with words are more akin to pale watercolours rather than anything striking in oils, a quiet soundscape of inner thoughts and emotions, and it is this that gives them their strength." - WriteOutLoud

"The two-thirds of these poems which are not about Abse might have constituted a 'dying fall', but this does not happen. There is something shrewd and almost ruthless about Hjelmgaard's understanding of human longings and the limits that confines them." - Artemis

A Second Whisper is a thoughtful and sensitive collection that reflects the changing identities of a woman: in motherhood, in widowhood, in friendship and grief. There are elegies to the loss in 2014 of her mentor and partner, the poet Dannie Abse which are a tribute to their deep friendship. There are also poems to her late husband who died in 2006 and for their children and for relationships from the author’s past in New York City and Denmark. The poems are both elegiac and celebratory: they move and change tone as the author travels to the past and negotiates through the geography of grief and feelings of displacement in London, and finally opens to her new life in the present.

"A Second Whisper is such a beautiful collection that I read it at one stretch. In language whose easy music sounds like thinking, these poems tell the story of a special late love after bereavement, as well as of loves of all kinds, and the very experience of being alive." – Gillian Clarke

"These poems express in lyrically controlled language and rhythms a quietly restless spirit of an "expert at loss". They capture people, places and emotions in the voice of a twice-widowed seeker who is looking to settle or travel after losing a husband and a lover. The poet is content to follow "poetry and Eros" in her search. She mixes pathos with a wry humour. This is a finely tuned collection rooted in the real." – Lawrence Scott



Review by Dylis Wood, Artemis

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

In her fourth full collection, A Second Whisper, Lynne Hjelmgaard continues to work with the autobiographical material which made A Boat Called Annalise (Seren 2016, reviewed in ARTEMISpoetry 18, May 2017) such a fascinating book. The story is in part a sad one of two beloved men dying, her husband and a later companion, the poet Dannie Abse. This book opens with a warm threnodial sequence celebrating the relationship with Abse. The account is convincingly realistic with humorous touches but an extraordinary empathy between two people emerges from the spare honesty of the writing: "He could've been talking about anything // and she would listen because he always listened to her", At the Event. It is known to be hard to write about happiness, but it's rare to detect even a share of overkill here – this is disciplined writing. The poems written about subsequent loneliness are particularly poignant: "when I'm already in bed, / when their joyful cries begin", The Couple Upstairs. The two-thirds of these poems which are not about Abse might have constituted a 'dying fall', but this does not happen. There is something shrewd and almost ruthless about Hjelmgaard's understanding of human longings and the limits that confine them. So other high points here are searing poems about relationships with children: "I was too young / to understand or even think about / what is a mother / I just became one for you / as you have said from time to time / especially when we were younger / are you really my mother / and you questioned my whole being"; Berith; "He's disappeared into a vastness / as if he'd walked away / without looking back ... As a young mother / I couldn't have perceived / love's later roadblocks: // distances and silences", The Exchange. Hjelmgaard also explores rueful memories of other close relationships: "How you once held the map / so seemingly secure / but in truth / even as a child / I sensed your unease // (you didn't know / you didn't know, / where we were going)", Mother; "Loss can be moved through like a room ... I hope this letter's not too later", Chestnut Tree; "Now we write careful letters / as if they are to lost versions / of ourselves", Once. Towards the end of the book Hjelmgaard returns, with great warmth, honest an clarity to early parts of her life. 

Review by Neil Leadbeater, WriteOutLoud

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Poetry can surprise us in many different ways. Reading parts of this collection took me back just short of 50 years. When I was a student, I lived in a part of north London that was close to Golders Green. The name always fascinated me; I suppose it was something to do with the alliteration. The first editions of the Penguin Modern Poets were then in print and just before I left London, Penguin issued the penultimate volume (vol.26) that included a selection of poems by the Welsh poet and doctor, Dannie Abse, who lived in Golders Green.

Lynne Hjelmgaard was born in 1951 in New York City and moved to Denmark in 1971. She studied at the Aarhus Art Academy and graduated from Frøbel Seminarium in Copenhagen. She taught creative art for children in various schools and institutions before becoming a full- time sailor. At one point, she crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat with her husband. She now lives in London.

A Second Whisper is a sensitive collection of poems, elegiac in tone, that pay tribute to the loss in 2014 of her mentor and partner, Dannie Abse. The title poem references the sound of a closing door and all that it implied at the time in terms of moving on.

For me, it is the London poems that are at the heart of this collection as they trace moments of recollection and celebrate  a relationship that flowered in later life “when [our] widowed worlds / first connected”. There is no sadness here and no note of regret. Instead there is a calm acceptance of everything that life brings and takes away. Such moments are drawn out of ordinary things such as watching the antics of a wild parakeet seen through a window, sheltering underneath an awning in the rain, or walking alone on Hampstead Heath, a snatch of conversation in a taxi, or spotting a South American bird in Golders Hill Park zoo.

Recurring themes in this first section include the anonymity of urban living captured in poems such as ‘The Couple Downstairs’ and ‘Living in London’ where the neighbours are comically referred to as ‘No-see-ums’ and the consolation of nature, in particular trees, (lime, chestnut, yew, an apple tree that grows through walls, to name but a few) which are associated with loss but also with healing.   

In ‘Gainsborough Gardens’, a private road in Hampstead, that is arranged in an oval crescent around a central garden, Hjelmsgaard writes:

     I return to the tree that still stands
     - beautiful, haunted, dead.
     Why does it thrill me?  Tall beheaded creature –
     the more I return the more comforting
     it becomes …

To Hjelmgaard, the tree is “no longer of this world yet in it”. A beautiful image for a lost loved one.  

The poems are not all centred on north London; others are set in places as far apart as Wales and Greece, Italy and Denmark, America and the Britsh Virgin Islands. References to the sea and sailing are frequently to be found in the second half of the book.

There are poems addressed to her late husband, who died in 2006, and to her children and relationships from the author’s past in America and Denmark. The change of scene and the host of characters, family and friends, is one of many things that make this collection so engaging. Sometimes an object rather than a person receives special recognition such as in the very fine ‘Ode to a Danish Lamp’:

     When I walk down the stairs you are waiting for me.
     You’ve had enough of the night and long shadows,
     the curtains are drawn. We’re in the depths
     of dark November and a silence at 6 am.
     My fingers can feel along the wall
     until they find your switch.
     As a mere human I can’t measure up
     to your Nordic metallic cool …

… Why do you move me so?

There is a sense of stoic humour in ‘Instructions for the Coastal Walk from Clarach to Borth’ and comedy is present in the delightful ‘Ode to Blue Jeans’ and ‘Afterthoughts’.

The pictures that Hjelmgaard paints with words are more akin to pale watercolours rather than anything striking in oils, a quiet soundscape of inner thoughts and emotions, and it is this that gives them their strength.

Review by the London Grip

Sunday, March 8, 2020

An introduction to this collection describes, in tender and amusing detail, Lynne Hjelmgaard’s meeting with Dannie Abse; and the relationship that gradually developed between them surfaces in a number of the poems as well. These poems suggest the joys and challenges faced by two people, both been bereaved after long, strong marriages, subsequently experiencing the quickening of new love. The book’s title, A Second Whisper is therefore appropriate, but this collection is more than just an exploration of late love; it contains poems about Hjelmgaard’s other family relationships, her marriage, her visits to Italy, her boating experiences, and a variety of other subjects including everything from blue jeans to ladybirds.

Several of the poems are about Hjelmgaard’s own children. They can be poignant as in “Winter Gives Me” which moves, on the one hand, from ‘Winter gives me permission to shut down, / to crawl inside myself and rest’ (which is possibly an emotion most of us will recognise as an annual urge to hibernate), to doubts about her relationship with her son, and recognition of personal failings: ‘I know nothing about parental love.’

On a more positive note, she comes close to the core of maternal love, as she celebrates, walking behind her adult children, and seeing their separateness and yet continued closeness “My Children Walk Ahead”.

Poems that illustrate her love and knowledge of the sea include the deliciously humorous treatment of sailing chaos of “In a sailing dinghy with Berith”

Inevitably the boom came crashing over
but we were safe and we were laughing;
        and the more I struggled
        the harder we laughed
at near misses with other boats,
crashes into buoys, tangled lines,
billowing sails filling with water,
land moving further and further away.

Hjelmgaard may have sailed across the Atlantic on at least one occasion, but I’m not sure that this adventure with Berith would appeal to many other sailors.

At the other extreme, is her highly controlled account of a tragic drowning drama in “Soper’s Hole”, which is described effectively and succinctly in sparse and simple couplets.

There are occasional non-standard phrases, such as ‘its blurry kaleidoscopic world inside of a world’; and at times there are very slight hints of Hjelmgaard’s North American background, as with the attractive American Indian word for biting midges, ‘No-see-ums’, which occurs twice. There are also some interesting and pleasing inversions of word order, such as ‘The vegetable man cracks a smile with no front teeth’ (“At Villa Borghese”). I found something enticing about that unusual and ambiguous sentence and kept returning to savour it.

Qualities that stand out in this collection include: a close and detailed observation as in “Ode to a Danish Lamp” with the poet’s response to the lamp: ‘Why do you move me so?’; and also a clear sight and complete avoidance of sentimentality, as in the unemotional approach she takes to the butchering of birds in “Death in the taverna”. There are flashes of playfulness, with a light touch and humour worthy of someone close to Dannie Abse, seen in “On Willow Road”, which also contains colourful descriptions:

Outside my window a wild parakeet
occupies a branch upside down

Hjelmgaard’s musical ear is, perhaps, at its clearest in “The Gift”:

Would you want to be here?
Now on cool autumn evenings,
glow of yellow leaf, glow of yellow lamp,
dusk then darkness.

(Do I detect a shade of Eliot’s influence in those lovely lines?) And throughout the collection there is a careful choice of poetic form, including the controlled pace of “In Gainsborough Gardens” with its fifteen separate lines. It must have been tempting to present this in two compact stanzas, but the single lines allow a slow and contemplative approach to the scene she portrays.

Finally, in the poignant “I Can Almost Sense the Divide”, the poet’s clear, loving but unemotional voice captures the final moments of a loved one’s life. As so often in autobiographical poems, one wonders how much, if any, back story we need to know. I am not entirely sure whether the dying person here is Hjelmgaard’s husband or Dannie Abse, but I do know that the reader is taken into that hospice room, to share the poet’s uncertainty, her farewell.

... Then you speak
in a voice so clear for what it knows

observing us, our life together
as someone moving on.

So many of us loved Dannie Abse, both as a poet and as a man and I personally treasure the evening he and I, along with Rosie Bailey, shared a reading at the Poetry Society AGM on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Hjelmgaard was fortunate to be close to Dannie in his final years, and through “A Second Whisper” we can notice again, and appreciate, some of the details of his life – his Jewishness, his Welshness, his bubbling humour and his extreme generosity to other poets.

A Second Whisper celebrates a poet who was clearly known to, and loved by, the writer; but the book is definitely not just a tribute to Dannie Abse. It is a collection of worth in its own right, with a voice and register that are very different from Abse’s. Hjelmgaard’s next book is likely to be a more obvious response to Abse’s poetry; and on the strength of this collection, we can look forward to that.

Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Thursday, November 28, 2019

A Second Whisper by Lynne Hjelmgaard takes us on a different sort of journey: “It opens with the sweet lapping/ of water on a rock/ and closes gently where the tide/ has nowhere to run.”

A deep tenderness ripples through evocations of quiet intimacy. Examinations of time, memory and seasons thread stanzas with subtle fragrances – the smell of yellow autumn leans and the scent of old paper anchor hints of a richly sensuous life. There is humour in the fondness captured here: a baby magpie described as a “little trollop”, daffodils are “still hibernating”, and rats leave teethmarks “on apples and soap.”

Simultaneously, seemingly light lines shiver with feeling: “whenever it rains/ now or anywhere the rain/ stops everything/ to think of you.”

In 'Once', Hjelmgaard remembers a long friendship: “Now we write careful letters/ as if they are to lost versions/ of ourselves.” To me this describes the entire collection of thoughtful, inward-reaching poems, and we are privileged to be privy to them.

Review by Martyn Crucefix

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Last night I was at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden for the launch of two new collections from Seren Books. Lynne Hjelmgaard was reading from A Second Whisper and Mary J. Oliver was launching her debut collection, Jim Neat: the Case of a Young Man Down on His Luck. Oliver’s book is a curious, thought-provoking mix of family research and prose/poetic fictions. But I’ve known Hjelmgaard for a few years now as a workshop colleague and as a friend of Dannie Abse and I wanted to gather some thoughts here on her new poems.

In her playfully titled poem, ‘Ode to a Danish Lamp’, Lynne Hjelmgaard constructs a paean to a piece of electrical equipment which ends rhetorically, “Why do you move me so?” Some clues to the answer are scattered through the poem; they lie in comparisons. The lamp is an example of “Nordic metallic cool”, beside which the speaker – “a mere human” – feels humbled. She and the rest of the room, we are told, arrange themselves about the lamp which hence serves as a focal point and even a source of “answers”. It’s as if the lamp is wired up to a clearer, less divided, perhaps purer world:

[. . . ] the charged interior, a territory,
where no country nationality race
or religion has any significance.

In contrast, the human figure is more embedded in a world of time, place and quotidian specificity while the lamp emerges with its “fine, oh so thin aluminium rim” as a denizen of a less troubled realm. The speaker is moved because excluded from such a realm and the majority of the poems in A Second Whisper focus precisely on our more compromised, familiar world, particularly the ‘merely human’ experiences of time, memory and loss.

Without being a particularly philosophical poet, Hjelmgaard writes as someone who is an “expert at loss”. Another less typical poem describes – in great detail – Brooklyn Bridge and the area around it (the poet was born in New York City). She remembers sailing out under the bridge:

Manhattan is a chain with many links,
some are broken, lost and never repair,
but others can be retrieved even at a distance.
For what can shine so brightly at sea
but a city, once loved, left behind?

Hjelmgaard’s focus on links lost or remembered is probably hard-wired into her constitution (these thematic roots usually are) but it has also been provoked by biographical influences. Her 2011 book, The Ring (Shearsman Books) was dedicated to the memory of her Danish husband, Stig – who died in 2006 – and followed an American woman’s travels around Europe, mourning and negotiating that loss. Dannie Abse, among others, praised those poems: “Widowhood allows them to acquire a poignant universality”. Five years later, A Boat Called ‘Annalise’ (Seren Books), was full of more poems of remembrance, evoking the sea journey the newly married couple made out of New York to Europe, via the Caribbean.

There are further poems written to and about her husband in this new book. In ‘As We Silently Agree’, the husband appears to the widow, “in some kind of afterlife”, and is seen busying with a boat’s anchor chain, searching the ship’s log and weather charts. This is perhaps a dream poem:

Our fingers clasp in recognition
as we silently agree:
what does it matter now
if you don’t keep the course?

And ‘Scorpion Hill’ may be another example of dreamwork, the wife this time revisiting a once-shared house in the Caribbean. Its final image is of many moths clustering round “a single light bulb / left on during the night”. These are fine poems of time and sustaining memory – that bulb still burning – in which the past and those lost within it are shown to revisit the survivor.

Hjelmgaard’s treatment of this traditional theme is neither religious nor consolatory in any facile way. The pain of great loss is heartfelt and yet she manages to persuade the reader – it’s less intellectual than that, maybe she draws her readers in to the actual experience – that what lies in the past still retains is power to evoke pleasure and even that the future’s gifts are to be welcomed, even anticipated. In ‘To a Chestnut Tree’, addressing the tree in its autumnal state, the narrator is sure, “There will always be another one. / And another. // Loss can be moved through like a room”. What a magnificent line that last one is. There is a wisdom in it, however modestly it may be presented.

Time takes – but time also provides. Another poem of trees has a fir leaning eventually into a “beloved palm” – though it may take a century or two of slow growth. A lonely tamarisk on a cliff top also has the capacity to “wait until it can drink / from the bay eighty feet below”. Hjelmgaard finds her themes in the smallest incidents. Unpacking a suitcase after a journey, she finds she has brought two extra items home with her. One is a fossil of a snail which seems to represent a determined persistence through time (60 million years perhaps, in this case). The other – a flighty stowaway – is a spider which she finds “already busy / making yourself at home”. The spider evokes an improvisatory optimism, an adaptability, even an adventurousness, which I see as some of the most distinctive elements in the themes of Hjelmgaard’s work.

It’s these qualities to which Gillian Clarke is responding in her comment on A Second Whisper, where she finds in the book “the story of a special late love after bereavement”. In recent years, the British poet who has written most powerfully and movingly about bereavement and the encroachment of the past into the present is Dannie Abse. This is from his poem ‘The Presence’ about the loss of his wife, Joan:

It’s when I’m most myself, most alone
with all the clamour of my senses dumb,
then, in the confusion of Time’s deletion
by Eternity, I welcome you and you return
improbably close, though of course you cannot come.

The opening 14 poems of A Second Whisper explore the loving relationship that sprung up between Hjelmgaard and Dannie Abse after the deaths of Stig and Joan. Her opening prose piece takes us directly into everyday details. The two bereaved poets meet: “And for a time it was the four of us. Though one day, without ceremony, we noted their absence”. Thus set free, the ones still living proceed, though along no clear path, “wherever poetry and Eros chose to take [them]”

Even at their first meeting – on a train journey back from the Torbay Poetry Festival – the presence and absence of time was notable. Minutes were not to be wasted in the presence of the older poet, says the younger narrator. But mysteriously – this is in late October – the waitress at the station café is seen taking away the clock to change the hour. A photograph of the two poets at a reading shows the younger woman “less sure of herself”, while Abse is more comfortable with the attention. But at 85 years old, Abse begins appearing in these poems as more and more in decline. “Aged and dying you grew more tender”, as ‘A Second Whisper’ puts it. In this poem – as in several others – Hjelmgaard is visiting Abse at home.

I knew just how to open your front door quietly.
Its lock a whisper, a second whisper to shut.

This image – absolutely precise in its remembrance, yet also powerfully suggestive – is like the earlier line about walking through loss as through a room. The first whisper has a respectfulness, concerned with quietude, with the sensitivity of the artist, the closeness of death. The second whisper is full of ambivalence: protective perhaps from the noisy, nosey world, wanting to secure the intimacy, wanting to defend the loved one from the inevitable, yet a foreshadowing of that very inevitability.

‘A Thief Is in the House’ has death portrayed as an invader, breathing heavily, thumping up the stairs to the dying figure whose “eyes [are] prepared // for nothingness”. But these poems are not overwhelmed by grief. As if taking a leaf out of Abse’s own poems of mourning and remembrance, Hjelmgaard’s predominant tone is one of recall and revisiting – even of re-visitation. Walking alone on Hampstead Heath, she hears the lost lover chanting a Lorca poem; because one day they sheltered under an awning on Golders Green Road, every time it rains now, “the rain /stops everything / to think of you”. And in an exquisite lyric, ‘Speak to me Again at Dusk’, Hjelmgaard yearns to resume her conversations with the dead poet, yet her tone – which might have been one of pleading and despair – in fact retains a clear appreciation of the lasting value of what has been and a pleasured openness to the present (hear those noisy roosters in a moment!). Such deep-grained attitudes seem to have been a mutual common ground between these two writers and perhaps was one of the constitutive elements in their late-flowering love:

These lines among many lines
are words just for you
and the roosters that speak them
just before dawn.

User Reviews

Sorry there are no reviews yet for this book