London Grip comments on recent collections by Rosemary Norman, Julia Webb & Abegail Morley
For Example by Rosemary Norman [Shoestring Press] is unusual in arranging its poems in alphabetical order of title (as I believe the author also did in her previous collection Italics) rather than aiming to have a thematic or linguistic link between successive poems. Nevertheless I had no sense of awkwardness or unevenness as I read through this collection (admittedly a short one, at only 34 pages). In fact, the thought did intrude that the poems had been carefully arranged according to some internal logic and that the titles were assigned afterwards. That would be consistent with the sometimes playful nature of Norman’s poetry which is in any case enigmatic, elusive and difficult to categorize. She has a knack of sounding confident even when expressing doubt or speculation: For years now I’ve pretended to be good looking / and let them make what they can of it [‘Collyer Syndrome’]; or I might / with a blow to the head / come to believe / what’s good for me. But she also does interesting things with situations and ways of speaking that are all too familiar: If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times / She says, she says, she says, whatever it is / she’s told me [‘Counting to a thousand’]. In ‘Wail’ a crying child on a bus prompts her to speak, and with assurance, / for all of us, when giving permission to Wail child while you can. / It is permitted to the innocent // whose wail has no subtext. Wail for us.
Other poems which stand out strongly include the dark villanelle ‘In memoriam’, one of whose repeat lines is The air he died in travels round the building, and the anthropomorphic ‘I, hen’ which speaks in a voice somewhat reminiscent of that in Les Murray’s ‘The Cows on Killing Day’: Oh the loud-headed-/and beaked / choir of / me. Also deserving mention – but very hard to illustrate without extensive quotes – is the title poem (appearing midway through the book) which comments in advance on the poem which closes the collection. Let me explain she begins, encouragingly; and then she invites us to Take a poem of my own which may help us understand her claim that what we call one another / is a disturbance in ourselves. This is far from straightforward but it is wonderfully intriguing stuff; and For example is a collection which becomes increasingly enjoyable on second or third reading, perhaps as we become more immersed in Norman’s highly original poetic imagination.
Bird Sisters by Julia Webb [Nine Arches Press] is strongly focussed on family issues and features several sequences and series. ‘Sisters’ is an eleven-poem sequence, divided into two parts, which finds multiple ways of capturing the sometimes uncomfortable nature of sibling relationships: This sister is the tang of onion on your fingers / the persistent garlic on the Birds of Britain tea towel / that you wash and wash but cannot shift. (I wonder if we really need that third line?). ‘Sun Daddy’ is another strong and dark sequence, in which Sun Daddy was wise to their mischief, / he dragged night back upstairs, // threw it into their bedroom and locked the door. Such destructive behaviour by the central character reminds me of Ted Hughes’s Crow, particularly when He drew himself a hole the size of the universe // and stepped into it. Away from fantasy narrative, Webb also does well with the down-to-earth. In ‘Breakdown’ she accurately reminds us of obsessive outward behaviours that can accompany emotional conflict: there is one place left / in the car park if only we can find it; /we drive round and round/ for minutes that feel like hours; and in ‘no one speaks of you’ she makes good use of repetition to suggest a troubled mind circulating the same thoughts again and again – those who know not to speak of you / and have to speak of you / speak of you in hushed tones.
More than anything else in this collection, however, I am impressed by the seven prose poems which are spaced out across the book, forming a loose narrative sequence about domestic events which are very much in keeping with the rest of the poems but whose voice is intriguingly different. ‘The Piano Lesson’ sets the scene and begins When I asked Daddy if I could learn the piano, he said NO because MUSIC IS THE DEVIL’S WORK. When Daddy was away doing GOD’S WORK Mama took us to visit the end-of-the-row neighbours. They are secret friends because they are BAPTISTS. Later on in the sequence, ‘Rain’ finds the child-narrator housebound in wet weather and starting to build MY OWN ARK in case Daddy couldn’t save me. But when the rain stops I kicked the mess under Alice’s bed and wondered if Daddy would buy me a new Tiny Tears if I accidentally broke her arm off. These extracts show the verbal energy that characterises Webb’s work at its disturbing best.
By an odd coincidence, the opening poem in The Skin Diary by Abegail Morley [Nine Arches Press] overlaps with Julia Webb’s prose poem sequence, being about an (imaginary) sister and even mentioning a Tiny Tears doll. But Morley goes on to deal with broader themes of love and loss. ‘The Archive of Lost Lives’ vividly conjures up acid-free boxes … packed with could-bes cracking like vertebrae. This archive contains grim certainties – lungs slaked with brackish water – but the next poem ‘B1077’ is shows us the uncertainties involved when breaking news of tragedy: Your voice on the phone / untangles down the line. I think of an asthma attack,/a hospital, but that isn’t it you say. Morley can make unexpected and unnerving observations about ordinary objects. In ‘If you stitch a woman’ armholes don’t whimper / if drawn too tight; ‘Brighton flat’ mentions being scared by the man on the ground floor whose handprints on the glass fit mine, / perfectly; and ‘Forgetting you’ speaks of silence scribbling on emulsioned walls and winds that threaten the letterbox. These physical descriptions – and the uncomfortable possibilities they suggest – add considerable weight to the emotional content of the poems.
The second half of the book contains two companions to ‘The Archive of Lost Lives’. Items in ‘The Cabinet of Broken Hearts’ have forgotten how to … /dedicate their lives to someone else; and the exhibits in ‘The Museum of Missed Opportunities’ suffocate under // the creak of onlookers, who lean their full weight / on the cabinets. (If the first of these fleetingly recalls Sue Rose’s Heart Archives it merely shows that completely original ideas are very rare!) Real or imagined objects from the past also figure in ‘Foundling’ which is part of a group about loss of/longing for a child. Some child’s shoes are discovered during renovation of an old house and later When the door shuts I know it’s her, / put out Madeira cake, biscuits, sweets / on a plate smaller than my fist, push it / to the table’s edge so she can reach. This tender and complex poem shows once again Morley’s dexterity in dealing with feelings via commonplace tangible objects. She pulls off a similar trick in a poem about a commuter train encounter which began when you mistook a sneeze for a wave [and] waved back. Speculating about the man she has never even spoken to, Morley ends by wondering what name they’ll grind // on your gravestone while she holds a black handkerchief to my face / in case I might sneeze or wave. In this fanciful little poem Morley deals with bereavement just as poignantly as in poems where she approaches the subject more conventionally.