Emma Lee gives a glimpse of the fine poems contained in the latest Second Light anthology and also considers the role that such anthologies can play.
Her Wings of Glass edited by Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle and Dilys Wood Second Light Publications, www.secondlightlive.co.uk ISBN 9780992708801 212pp £12.95
The title of this anthology is taken from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Stings’ and the aim is to provide a representative cross-section of women poets based in the UK, writing in English, who are writing beyond the traditional women’s issues. The poems are collected by theme, the first two focusing on the natural world. In Rebecca Goss’s ‘Ants’, the insects invade the gym where an antenatal class is taking place and a group crawl under the narrator:
and with one collective heave lifted me, inches from the ground. Hard to believe I didn’t smash their shiny backs as they marched me one triumphant lap past the cracked heels of tired, expectant women. As we headed for the door, I’m sure I heard you laughing, felt you leap in me like mischief, your mother superbly weightless, on a sheet of shivering black.
The oddity of the ants’ behaviour is reflected through the oddity of feeling a new life develop and move within a mother’s body.
The poems on war generally focus on loss and legacy. In Angela Stoner’s ‘Dachau’ lipstick becomes a symbol of the need to be alive no matter what:
Painting a healthy flush on corpse-like flesh it keeps us from the death line. After liberation, with her skeletal fingers, she paints her thin and bloodless lips. She paints a bright red flower which says Despite this deathmask, I’m a woman, alive and passionate, with lips that can kiss.
Jackie Kay’s ‘Teeth’ looks at the human cost of immigration through the botched deportation of Joy Gardiner which caused her death:
This is X who has all her own teeth. Came to this country with her own teeth. Soundbites will follow. Lies will roll tomorrow. The man with the abscess will say she had a weak heart. High blood. Illegal. Only doing his job. Fill it in. Write it down. Bridge the gap. Give him a stamp of approval: silver or gold or NHS, she resisted arrest; there’s your cause of death. On a plate. She was wrong. Give her a number. Think of a number. Take away the son.
Maria Jastrzebska’s ‘Lazienki Park’ tells the narrator’s favourite story – untrue – of how her father protected her as a toddler. This is a story told so often it has become true. Other skaters yell at her to get out of their way when her father glides
to your side. Leave her alone, he calls, so you know there was a time he loved you. He loved you, did love you, loved you once.
The past tense loved and its repetition suggest a desperate need to believe in a love that may not have been real.
Natural sciences aren’t the only sciences under investigation. In Siobhan Logan’s ‘Khrushchev’s Ingenieur’ space travel is explored in a time when the identity of Soviet’s chief engineer, Sergei Korolev, was a state secret:
The CIA can never crack the puzzle of the Soviet’s Invisible Man. A bullet catcher, distracting apparatchiks wriggling from Five Year strait-jackets, he’s a master of the locked aluminium box. His ultimate routine unpicks gravity’s chains: First Man in Space. Masked in misdirection Russia’s Iron King is swallowing the impossible like so much fire.
Naturally, family relationships are explored too, but not necessarily in terms of the traditional nuclear family. In Carrie Etter’s prose poem, ‘Imagined Sons 12: The Birthmother, The Adoptive Mother and Their Surfer Boy’
Never falling, he rides the wave. I’ve been here for years. Long ago, a tall woman in a cream- coloured suit sat near me on the sand. I asked her to watch my towel and nectarines while I hurried to the bathroom; on my return, I saw juice on her chin. Weeks later, I confided, ‘That’s my son,’ pointing as he glided towards us on a six-foot wave. ‘He’s mine,’ she snapped. She pulled off my pointing arm as easily as if it were a mannequin’s and cast it into the water, before running into the ocean and swimming toward him. Knocking his surfboard aside, she slid under his feet and floated to the surface: hair the dark red of a nectarine pit, lips fixed in a victorious smirk. All the while my arm drifts slowly, surely toward him – and toward her.
There are some superb poems in this collection and the overall quality is high. However – and it’s a however the publishers are aware of – there’s a risk that, by limiting inclusion to women poets over the age of thirty, anyone not in this group will feel the anthology is not for them. By keeping the range of subjects broad (and wider than those customarily dismissed as ‘women’s issues’) Her Wings of Glass goes a long way in order to reach out beyond its limits.
A review can’t offer an answer to the perennial problem of poems by women getting fewer reviews than poetry collections by men or of the traditional yardstick of great poems by white men in the literary canon creating a bias against voices that aren’t male or white. But anthologies like Her Wings of Glass are part of that answer. Only part, however, because there is still the problem of ensuring good poetry is read by as wide an audience as possible; and anthologies that ask readers to look at the poets, rather than just the poems, can be limiting. Ideally all poems in any anthology would be there on poetic merit alone: however, that would require editors to be able to make selections free from ingrained or taught biases that reject poems that look a little different to the yardstick of the literary canon. Until that point is reached, there is a need for anthologies like Her Wings of Glass, which publish quality poems that otherwise risk being overlooked.
Emma Lee’s Ghosts in the Desert is available from Indigo Dream Publishing. She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com and reviews for The Journal, London Grip and Sabotage Reviews.