Poems from over 25 magazines ("Magma" and "The Rialto" amongst them) and some prize-winners, so it's surprising that in the acknowledgements she writes "These small acts of support made me come back to poetry when I had decided to quit". It's refreshing to see that even accomplished poets have self doubt.
Many of the poems involve more than one person - persona and parent or lover; persona and animal; I/You. She likes to use steel at lot, also birds, bees, nets, fish and fishermen. Much of the symbolism clusters around the Fisherman (male, salt sweat, sperm) and Selkies, mermaids or caught fish (female, shiny). Fishermen get caught too.
I needed to read most of the poems more than once, partly because there are many one-offs. "To kill a robin" has a "Lammas Hireling" feel to it - myth plus dialect. "Beatrix Potter's Bed" and "Joan of Arc" deal with historical characters. "What the Sindy House Taught Me" is great fun - "There will be doors you cannot open,/ views printed to the windows endlessly". I could go on, though rather than tackle the other poems individually, I'll try to work through some themes. The result will be even less like a review than usual. I hope that the length of these notes will counter the impression that I'm critical of the style. There's much to absorb, and the image clusters are so close to "making sense" that I feel I should persevere.
The pieces range widely over the poetry/prose continuum. That said, the line/stanza breaks seem pretty much irrelevant in these pieces. I like "The Museum of Water" - it's one of several poems (e.g. "The House the Wanted to be a Boat") where aspects of Land and Sea are exchanged. Set out in couplets, it begins with "There is nothing we keep to remember/ but water", then lists some items in the collection - "Our tears don't look like much, barely fill// a hotel pot of jam ... beads of cold showers,/ the blood of a snowman that melted so fast". Lists allow continuity (a prose feature) and juxtaposition (a putative poetry feature). For a while, texts in the form of [shopping] lists were sent to poetry magazines because there was no alternative, but now there are more outlets for short texts, so I think "The Museum of Water" could appear in either classification. Ditto for "The Fisher Daughter", which is a list of Dos and Don'ts.
"The Woman who could not say love" concerns a woman who darns a man's coat pocket so that he could feel the ruck if his hands were cold. That's the plot of the piece, the affecting factor that could have been part of a short story. The linguistic glitter is that she writes her love with "a needle held to the window, looping an apostrophe of sunlight to his coat". This piece feels rather like prose with poetic accessories.
In contrast, "The Herring Lass and the Soap" (and the majority of the other poems) more intricately fuses description and imagery.
There are many of these - some short, some extended. "The Loss Adjusters" shows the variety
- "a man climbs out of bed, creaks on a tie and tucks a flask of milk into a satchel like a doctor arriving too late" - I don't really get that
- "the house waits for someone to adjust our losses simply as a corset" - I don't really get that. When I've seen corsets adjusted in films it seems painful and exploitative - is that the intention here? "the house" introduces further complications
- "Footfall soft as wing-skin" - is wing-skin soft?
- "smile like a doorstep"
- "cursive [writing] stingy as spooled twine"
Some poems have rather centrifugal content held together by the title. There is of course nothing wrong with this lack of organic unity. Indeed, I'm more envious of these than the other poems because when I write drafts in this style I have trouble holding my nerve as I re-write.
- "At Six Stone, I Think of Feeding the Birds" begins with the persona in bed, then imagines being a hostess presenting china bowls, then being filled up by the scent of hair, then imagines being a church - "your voice ... moves like a pigeon locked in a vestibule" - I like the ending.
- "The Long April of Electra" has scattered elements: "I've learnt to whistle like a God breathing prophecies into chimney pots ... The daffodils I place by her bed all April are yellow horses".
Occasionally, poems seem to try too hard to sound poetical.
- "Kissing the Man with the Beard of Bees begins with "There's small life in the sugar bowl./ The waitress parts grains with a spoon, lifts// insect and bowl to the door and pours/ a pale storm into the cracked cup of the day". I don't see what this straining language adds.
- "The Woman with No Name" has a niggly word exchange - "Mother/ veined to my underwear, stitched to my calves"
Faced with a phrase I don't understand I have a determined but limited approach. I tend to read the poem to the end (because an explanation might come later) then read the phrase again. Sometimes phrases sound good without me feeling I need to "understand" them. But (and in this I suspect I'm different to many readers) if I still don't get it, I tend not to ignore it as if it weren't there, but treat it as a defect of sorts. Perhaps the poet gambled that an obscure phrase would work for some people and not others. In such situations the poet might say "if you don't get it, don't worry about it", but why shouldn't I treat it as a bad phrase which could wreck the poem? Suppose nobody gets the line?
This approach to reading seems to favour conservatism and safe writing. I look upon it more as a plea for reader-friendly writing. After all, the poet can use notes either in the book or online.
The obscurity of a poem can be heterogeneous. Ends of poems are prone to phrases that are enigmatic, tempting the reader to reach beyond the rational poem. Sometimes there's sudden lucidity amongst centrifugal forces, almost as if the poem started with a lyrical fragment that the poet wanted to extend without making the result too linear.
- "Featherweight" is rich and strange throughout.
- "My Father Snaps off Mermaids like Porn" contains "Dad swipes an arc of sun to the window" (i.e. Dad starts to clean the window); "The nailbrush on the ledge concedes like a kid with a Mohawk parted for church" (I like the image but why "on the ledge"? Why "concedes"?) "I stare at blood on my legs, a join-the-dots of my life./ Because it's not for us, Son, this merman stuff" (I thought the scene was a tool-hut or fish-gutting hut that hadn't been visited for a while. Perhaps the father's discouraging the son from following his profession. But why is "Son" capitalised? Surely it's not a religious reference. And I don't get the title)
- "When we don't talk about the weather" ends with "The breakers foam with boy spit, carry bones/ ashore. Bladderwrack wraps lost lips in a bow,/ sea snails scrawl apologies all over blue tongues". "spit", "lips" and "tongues" associated with "mouth" but I can't see why. I presume "bow" is a knot rather than the front of a boat.
- "Our Names in Pebbles" contains "The barrels are always gone, old men roll/ home, fires in whiskers, breath bobbing/ for kisses their wives have yet to learn" - have the old men rolled the barrels home? What are fires in whiskers? In another poem there's "Whiskers fiery as a streak of fawn// in overgrown orchards", so perhaps it just means they have ginger moustaches? What does "breath bobbing" mean? Is it like apple bobbing (hence the barrels)? I doubt it.
- "Lady with a Goose on her Head" has "No one carries a still wing as well as the lady with a goose on her head ... infinite stories webbed to her lips ... Only one thing is clear: she has a goose. It won't leave./ It flies so completely in the air she wraps around herself.". She might be a widow or spinster. "Goosed" has a few slang meanings, none of which help me here. Perhaps I should just let it be surreal.
- "The Religion of Mermaids" - "There's nothing to pray to, but the rain skinny-dipping/ on my legs, fusing into one drop where they meet. I thought that's how love was." I like the poem but how does rain skinny-dip? I presume that the subject of the verb "meet" is "my legs" not the raindrops otherwise there's redundancy. I presume it's no coincidence that the start of the first quote echoes the start of "The Museum of Water" - "There is nothing we keep to remember/ but water".
- "Backendish" - "Mother kicks her sandals under the stairs/ and scrolls on canary socks". "canary socks" means "yellow socks"? She uncurls the rolled-up socks like a scroll before putting them on?
- "Backendish" - "This is your last chance to sit outside ... the rag bag spilling/ your mother's previous lives on the rug.// Even now, with so few red leaves on the ash/ you know you'll lose count" - it's autumn. Are the spilling clothes supposed to correspond in some way to the leaves? Are the few remaining red leaves supposed to symbolise forthcoming periods? Why "ash"? Lose count of what?
- "The Woman Who Could Not Say Goodbye" ends with "The horizon is/ a closed ballroom where days of the week refuse to dance" - In what sense is the horizon like a ballroom? Has the ballroom closed down or is it locked up? Why "of the week"? "weekdays" are non-weekend days, but aren't "days of the week" all of the days?
- "Rose Petal Jelly" - "She holds a sunset and lets it fall// through her sieve. Briefly, the windows/ fill with a rosetint. Our used jars/ become churches we smash with a spoon " - I can see that the jamjar might be an internalised sunset, and that the sunset is externalised jelly. However, given that jars can only be smashed with heavy spoons anyway, what's the rest about? That home/family life is stronger than hollow, institutionalised religion?
- "Confession of a Selkie" - "You'd never know unless you saw us peel an egg, roll/ the soft boil, that we love you only as a sea-cow sleeps:/ one fin paddling always, partly drifting, half awake " A dictionary says that "Selkies are said to live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land." I've seen the one-fin-flapping behaviour on animal documentaries, but that doesn't help me here. A soft-boiled egg (I presume that's what "the soft boil" is) might have the flabby mass of a seal, but how does that illustrate that love isn't 100%?
- "The Poet's Last Will and Testament" - "I leave you the art of snails on walls, slow as palm readers/ stroking life and love to hand". I like the comparison of snails to a palm reader's finger, but I can't see how it fits into the wider context. Not for the first time, within a slightly puzzling image there's smaller imagery that I like, which makes me keep searching.
Other quotable parts
Less demanding are
- "Hallelujah for 50ft Women" - "lasses who ... stepped outside the fitting rooms of their Mother's eyes ... a milkman's moon spotting sequins on her skirt ... her sunburnt neighbours,/ faces pink as the contents of a bubblegum machine ... There's no weapon// she can drop. She has none but herself ... Let us be ants on her palm, lifted to meet her eye"
- "If I Let You Film Me..." ends with "There will always be somewhere you can arrange me// simply as flowers. Be the vase. If I let you film me,/ one day we'll see love when we've forgotten how it's done"
- "The Religion of Mermaids" - "If I search,/ I can find the tide in all things, really, let the steam/ on the windows weep on my behalf"
- "Clay Baby" - "This is the day girls like us are born, truly, conceived/ in a song that has no words yet hummed by any river,// a child watching clay dry, fingers poking our eyes/ in our faces, the gouge of our mouths cracked in the sun"