Thomas Ovans considers new collections by Maggie Butt and Fiona Sinclair
Sancti Clandestini by Maggie Butt
Ward Wood Publishing
76 pp £14.99
When the London Grip poetry editor passed me a fresh batch of books to review, I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of them appeared to be a picture book. Maggie Butt’s Sancti Clandestini – Undercover Saints – started out simply as a sequence of poems about (fictitious) patron saints for contemporary groups and causes. This on its own could have made an interesting and entertaining book; but it has now been considerably enhanced by colour images provided by staff and students from the Illustration course at Middlesex University.
A book that might have been expected to consist mainly of gentle humour does, in fact, come up with several sharp surprises. The first of these is the arresting image of the Patron Saint of Careless Cyclists with her neat bum balanced / on her lover’s handlebars / … / her legs around his waist. A page or two further on, a real sense of pathos is captured as The Patron Saint of Missed Connections watches the girl who checks ‘Arrivals’ all in vain / and hopes until the cleaner sweeps the hall. Butt takes a further startling step into the unexpected with The Patron Saints of Infidel Girls (whose surprise I am not going to spoil – read the book!) The Patron Saint of Sunday Morning turns out to be a dumpy Indian woman in a track suit – who must presumably be careful to keep her place within the broader territory of the Patron Saint of Weekends who orchestrates … the bursts of Greensleeves from the ice cream van.
In introducing the Patron Saint of Sat Navs, Butt plays interestingly with the way that many of us trust in invisible technologies where once we might have believed in “official” saints or guardian angels. These thoughts prepare the way, in the second half of the book, for slightly darker poems about human values and the ideas and symbols we turn to in a time of crisis – for instance, a soldier carrying a “Mum” tattoo takes her / to his grave, as she goes down with him. Grimmer still, the Patron Saint of Bullies advises Let him beat his sister / it’s practice for his wife. The strongest poem in this vein is about the Patron Saint of Soda Giants who promotes the sort of globalization that can place a curvy bottle in the hand / of toddlers who will not live to drink / disease-free water.
Even if some of the poems are not quite as strong as the ones I have mentioned and quoted from, they are all well-crafted, using a variety of forms and sometimes employing rhyme. Since the poems must all fit on a single page, they also show Butt’s skill at making a little language go a long way: a frost comes down as hard as grief; a compulsive hoarder’s jam jars are glinting in their pent up usefulness. She successfully resists attempts by the Patron Saint of Poetic Words to lure her into redundant usage of “myriad” or “iridescent”!
On occasions – as with Looters and Enthusiasts – the poems are less about the saint than about the people (s)he patronises. This is probably a minor quibble; but another observation is more interesting. In a reversal of what is commonly perceived to be the norm in ecclesiastical matters, female saints are in the majority and we have to wait until the tenth poem before we meet a male one. That this happens to be the Patron Saint of Rank Outsiders may or may not be a reflection of what Butt thinks about masculine judgement in the area of risk-assessment…
It would be remiss of me not to say something about the images, although I am not very well qualified to comment on them from a technical point of view. It is safe to say that they all seem pretty apt companion pieces for the poems. Those that made the strongest impression on me in their own right include Elizabeth Okori’s striking and brazen full-face Patron Saint of Liars and Susan Light’s manikin Patron Saint of Bullies. There is something Paula Rego-ish about the wintry scene of English Country Dancing by Fernanda Alonso; and I was intrigued by Phil Shaw’s ultra-real bookshelf for the Un-Cool (and wanted to know which, if any, of the titles and publishers were genuine!). The multiple illustrations by Martin Ursell for The Patron Saint of Haunted Houses are an atmospheric catalogue of fictional ghostly locations – and hence a useful checklist for fans of spooky stories.
The publishers are to be congratulated for successfully taking on the challenges of producing such an attractively illustrated book. It will surely remain enjoyable to pick up and browse many times after initial reading.
A Game of Hide And Seek by Fiona Sinclair
Indigo Dreams Publishing
34 pp £5.50
Fiona Sinclair is a poet who is fond of a good story – especially if it happens to be a rather dark domestic narrative. The poems in her second pamphlet collection, A Game of Hide And Seek, report quite a catalogue of misfortunes; but they are enlivened both by her wry sense of humour and by her flair for novel imagery and apt description. Her story-teller’s instinct also ensures that many of the poems end with a good pay-off line.
Surprising and vivid metaphors and similes are Sinclair’s strongest suits. During a house clearance, she recalls how money was placed into the greasy palms of occasional tables and she observes two spent single beds … carted away like plague victims. An unfortunate teenager has a glaze of grease over her face like candied fruit and a mature student finds exam dates began to march towards her / with bayonets fixed. And even if the metaphors occasionally misfire – as in she chases the Manhattan skyline like a dropped £50 note – it is good to see a writer willing to take risks in pursuit of an eye-catching comparison.
The title poem (which reveals one of the book’s main themes to be the attempted diagnosis of a recurring illness) describes a hospital visit to Bloomsbury (via quaint signposts, polite as old-fashioned policemen). Regrettably, on arrival the narrator finds her medical file that bulged like a stalker’s scrapbook has gone missing, leaving her with the medical history of a new-born.
Sinclair’s poem-stories are written in the third person but the amount of quite intimate detail they contain makes them sound autobiographical, even if they are not. Possibly it would have been better to have made them seem more like fiction and less confessional? As it is, they sometimes reveal – or quasi-reveal – a bit too much information about medical misfortunes and personal indignities; Sinclair does better when she keeps her observations as subtle as a little girl traced the scars gently with her finger / and named them her ‘hurts’. Notwithstanding these mild reservations, however, the frequent and felicitous descriptive touches continue: ECG pads are like gecko’s feet; an ambulance has blackened out windows / discrete as giant sunglasses (but surely it should be discreet?); and with a nod to Jenny Joseph, a potential invalid promises herself purple tyres on her wheelchair and a compartment for gin.
Given her observant eye and facility for language, it is a pity that Sinclair is not so sure-footed about rhythm and structure. She favours rather long – even straggling – lines which seem to be stretched by a perceived need to provide information rather than being broken in ways that might be poetically effective. Indeed it does not seem to me that enough attention is given to line breaks – let alone stanza breaks. Most of the poems appear as quite a solid block of text; a few verse breaks might give the reader some needed breathing space. Some of this, rather daunting, density of words results from Sinclair’s tendency to overstate rather than trust to suggestion and implication. Thus it is probably enough to mention the other out patients / who were unexploded bombs without adding that they were liable to go off ‘BANG’. Similarly, somebody can be turned to stone or afflicted by a gorgon disease; but it is surely superfluous to say both. I would venture to suggest that stronger editing would have helped to tighten, and perhaps reshape, these poems so Sinclair’s evident gifts could have been seen to better advantage. I shall look forward to seeing the further development of her poetry and hope that she is already working towards a new collection.