REVIEW: 'Forever taking leave' Ellen Phethean on Kathleen Bainbridge's Inscape

Kathleen Bainbridge has lived a long and various life, one might say many lives, so it’s surprising that she’s never had a publication before. However, age and experience mean hers is a confident voice, a poet in command of her rich material. Her pamphlet begins with an epigraph from Rilke:

we live our lives, forever taking leave

She animates and explores this theme with a wealth of loves and losses, yet presents her images with a light touch and great attention to detail and no hint of sentimentality or self-pity.

In ‘Lost Talisman’, Bainbridge demonstrates her ability to suggest a huge amount of back story and emotion into a few lines:

the memory of my hand stroking your face. Now in its place the air you used to breathe

laying bare a mood or feeling, a moment we also recognise in ‘Mixtape’:

…Then a woman appears, lifelong runner-up to the perfect girl who left three thousand miles ago and never looked back till now

In 'True', Bainbridge reveals how loss can compress time:

'All that winter I tended you in a bed then a grave

She ends with ‘Years passed that winter, / each one empty and full', lines that take one's breath away, as in 'Out of the Wind':

Your name, your date of birth, and the last day you were warm

In ‘Minnesota Déjà Vu’ she hints at violence and entrapment in a relationship with subtle imagery of weather and precise details of landscape:

Overnight the sky offloads its ballast on to the house, blinding the panes and jamming the front door tight

Bainbridge neatly transfers the epithet from man to house, in the lines ‘you funnel me through the meanness / of your kitchen into a bedroom.' She makes the word flame work to mean both love interest and a spark of life:

just a girl in her nicest clothes trying her best to navigate your three-hour silence. It was years before I knew you’d always seek to suffocate any steady flame

Bainbridge uses line breaks effectively, as above with ‘suffocate’ and also in ‘Looking for Lorca’ the lines

Late summer, just gone seventeen, I’m turning Calderon de la Barca into fluent modern English

That line ending on ‘turning' works to suggest the maturing process as well as the translation of language. Precise detail brings alive the landscape of the poems, as in ‘Me ’n’ U in Sin City’: ‘the sluttish fan’ does a lot of work, to create mood and event.

Through visceral detail we experience the physical sensations of her subjects:

‘Finches’ :

Delicate, I lower myself and wince as every knuckle of my backbone grazes the vitreous shell in six inches of water

and in ‘Asylum’: ‘I cannot speak // although I have a stomach full of words,’

‘A Poem’ is a wonderfully metaphoric exploration of the creative process:

A blue suitcase is floating through the fourth dimensions looking for its owner

It examines the poem’s insistence to take root and grow ‘like a dog outside a supermarket / tugging to be recognised.’ A wonderfully concrete image for an abstract event.

Recurring images of space and absence build throughout this collection, as in ‘The Vigil’:

…Tonight your husk rests in its last house, this narrow case between six candlesticks a hollow guest invited to keep company with empty pews in the dark

Absence becomes a powerful and tangible presence threaded through the poems, as in ‘Without Goodbye’: ‘your body still at the scene / like a dress on the beach'. And in the final couplet of ‘Writ in Water’, we reach the heart of the matter, so beautifully and succinctly expressed:

In dreams I lose you in crowds or underwater, I had no idea that losing goes on forever

This is an engaging and moving debut, by a poet who uses personal experience to create accessible and vivid images that will spark recognition in anyone who has suffered loss, love and the vicissitudes of life. These are poems to savour and reread. Kathleen Bainbridge is a poet who deserves a full collection.


Ellen Phethean lives, teaches and writes in Newcastle upon Tyne. Her books include Poetry: Wall, Smokestack Books 2007; Breath, 2014, Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman, Red Squirrel Press 2014. A Young Adult trilogy Ren and the Blue Hands, Ren and the Blue Cloth, Ren In Samara, Red Squirrel 2019.


Now retired, Kathleen Bainbridge has worked as a singer, English teacher and Gestalt therapist. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University in 2013, graduating with distinction, was the runner-up for the inaugural Flambard Poetry Prize in 2014 and received a New North Poet award from New Writing North in 2015. Her work has been published widely in magazines, anthologies and online, and Inscape was recommended in NWN’s recent Winter Edition of Northern Bookshelf. She lives across a ford in Northumberland untroubled by vampires.

Buy Inscape here from The Poetry Book Society: