Jacqueline Saphra’s new pamphlet collection may not take long to read – but it leaves a lasting impression on Rosie Johnston
This is a little beauty of a book. The size, design and vivid illustrations, together with its direct child-like voice, can make you feel as if you have a children’s picture book in your hands and that the young subject of the text is watching you, not far away. In seventeen prose poems Saphra gives us a strong sense of her parents, her step-father and three step-mothers and of the damage trickling through their story:
When I was a child I tied my mother
and father together with bandages and
put a song in their mouths.
Jacqueline Saphra has written stage and screen plays, songs and stand-up. She is now ‘back to her first love’, poetry. Flarestack produced her first pamphlet Rock ‘n’ Roll Mamma in 2008 and her second The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions was published by flipped eye in 2011. Saphra teaches at the Poetry School and Morley College, has been Good Housekeeping’s poet in residence and was on the board of Magma. Her poetry is widely anthologised, not least by The Emma Press.
Emma Wright is an Oxford Classics graduate who cut her teeth in publishing at Orion and set up The Emma Press in 2012. She works closely with her friend and co-editor Rachel Piercey and they have rapidly produced a selection of entertaining anthologies with themes range from Mildly Erotic Verse to female friendships, motherhood and fatherhood. If I lay on My Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women is one of a handful of new poetry pamphlets produced this year. Next year they take the pamphlet form into non-fiction too.
The choice of Mark Andrew Webber to illustrate Saphra’s pamphlet is inspired. Webber was diagnosed with juvenile chronic arthritis at the age of twelve. He found that healing lay in his artistic talent so he studied graphic design at Reading College and University College, Falmouth. His naked female figures in this pamphlet, often foetal, express the rawness of what is being revealed while his zestful colours and simplicity of composition raise the spirits.
Words and the games adults play with them are central to the story. Here Saphra writes about an heirloom, her Lithuanian grandfather’s desk:
are secret compartments in the back
where I hide problematic words in case
I need them later. Sometimes they whisper
in the dark. At quiet moments, if I put
my ear to the ink blotter, I hear the
longer ones mount the shorter ones.
Weeks or months later, I catch little
phrases or cries coming from inside.
The adults are guilty of more than self-absorption:
My second stepmother understood about
words. She liked some of mine so much
she often kept the best ones for herself.
Once I caught her pulling a whole string
of them out of her sleeve at a dinner party
but I didn’t let on.
The title comes from page 11 where we meet Saphra’s step-father, an artist. His paintings do not sell and wind up stacked against every wall, and are even fixed to the ceiling above the child’s bed. I had initial reservations about the title – was it over-dramatic without giving us an idea what the collection is about? – but the claustrophobia in the image has hooked me.
If I Lay on my Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women feels like a lifetime’s work distilled to its essence. As in the best poetry, it teems with what is not said. Saphra writes free verse elsewhere – why did she use prose poems here? The prose format adds to the apparent artlessness of the child’s voice, lets the child sit close to the reader and say, ‘This is how it really was’. Though it does not take long to read, the vibrations last and deepen.
Rosie Johnston’s three poetry pamphlets have been published by Lapwing Publications (Belfast), the latest being Bittersweet Seventeens in March 2014. She also writes fiction and journalism, facilitates writing groups in London and Cambridge and is Poet in Residence for the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust. www.rosie-johnston.com