Cathy Bryant‘s new collection displays a sense of confidence and a willingness to experiment, observes Emma Lee

 

Look at All the WomenLook-At-All-The-Women
Cathy Bryant
Mother’s Milk Books
ISBN 978-0-9573858-2-5
£8.99

 

The book is split into three sections, ‘The Lovers’ with 21 poems, ‘The Mothers’  with 15 poems and ‘The Eclectic Others’ containing 24 poems. The first section has an ironic tone: there are more poems about unrequited love, love going wrong and divorce than about a heady rush of romance. “Dinner Invitation” is a triolet,

He asked me out to eat a meal.
I pictured silver forks, red wine.
I got poshed up in dress and heels.
He asked me out to eat a meal.
Our eating place was then revealed:
‘Forton Services’ said the sign.
He asked me out, to eat a meal.
I pictured silver forks, red wine…

It’s funny, well-handled and the subject fits the form. The repeated lines underline the mismatch between expectation and reality.

There’s a change in mood and tone in the second section, ‘The Mothers’. The poems show imperfect mothers trying to understand and nurture their offspring with empathy, painting the mother/child relationships with tenderness, as in this extract from “The Alien”

So I realised what I was seeing:
an unhappy teenager, full of self-hate;
some things are universal, sadly.
And I hugged her in silent language
as the stars shone coldly down,
and I wished for more love for them all,
the young ones so messed up, so savage
with themselves, like me, too fat, too brown,
or her, feeling adulthood’s difficult call.

The third section, ‘The Eclectic Others’, draws on observations from other people’s lives or stories sometimes with a straight face, sometimes using irony. The difficulty with irony or humour is that it doesn’t always strike a chord with the reader. A couple of the poems didn’t feel fully realised – they seemed too much caught up on their own concept or novelty to be a satisfying poem. These poems give the collection an uneven feel. For example, “Mental Illness” has too vague a title (no one would call a poem “Physical Illness”) and relies on cliché to describe depression and anxiety without offering insight.  This is a shame because Cathy Bryant does show elsewhere she can be compassionate.

A good example of powerful and compassionate writing is a poem about Caleb Hollow who was aged 11 when he died from injuries sustained in a car crash. His parents were asked to pay the spare room subsidy (also known as the bedroom tax) on the anniversary of his death. The spare room subsidy has to be paid by those in receipt of housing benefits who are deemed to have a ‘spare’ bedroom. It has been controversial because the definition of spare is not straightforward and discretion has been allowed which has resulted in inconsistent decisions. Here is an extract from “Caleb Hollow’s Room” (which comes from the book’s second section)

There is a penalty for under-occupation.
On the first anniversary of his death
you must commence payments.
Look, it’s only £13 per week,
or you could always move.
We can assist you with advice.
You do not need room for his possessions now
— they are not essential. Keep one jumper,
maybe, to hold and smell, to cry into,
or small things — his toothbrush, photographs.
We’re all downsizing, you know.
We understand your concerns.
What more do you want?

This ably demonstrates the conflict between bureaucracy and empathy. In “Rape Dreams in the Slush Pile” (from the third section), Cathy Bryant contrasts survivor poems, written with the grit/ and dirt and shock and slam of it, and the fantasists:

The fantasists make it so pretty,
her ‘silk dress tattered and torn’ —
and they type it up and proofread it,
and send it to me, thinking I might publish it,
lay it out carefully, name it on the contents page,
print it out a thousand times, a thousand
rapes or rape/murders, and invite them
to read it proudly at the launch.
They believe that, along with all the other myths.
They keep sending them in. And you wouldn’t
believe how many use the word ‘pity’,
how many use the word ‘love’.

Look at all the Women shows a poet, confident in her voice, who is prepared to experiment with different voices and styles because she’s aware she cannot speak for everywoman but can record and reflect on the myriad experiences and voices of individual women.

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Emma Lee’s Mimicking a Snowdrop is forthcoming from Thynks Press and Yellow Torchlight and the Blues is available from Original Plus. She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com and is a blogger-reviewer for Simon and Schuster. She also reviews for The Journal, Elsewhere, London Grip and Sabotage Review magazines.