Shining Like Clara Bow: Brian Docherty celebrates an overdue first collection from performance poet Alice Denny
Alice Denny’s name may not be familiar in London poetry circles, but has become well known to poetry audiences in Hastings over the last year, and she has been a Star in Brighton for at least seven years. She has been asked so often, “Where can I buy your book?” that this pamphlet is long overdue. Denny is a charismatic performer of work of devastating candour which re-defines and re-invigorates the classic feminist shibboleth, ‘the personal is the political’. However, her poetry reaches beyond the current fashion in some quarters for ‘confessional‘work.
These poems present an insight into Denny’s remarkable life journey in ways that fully justify this publication’s title. The opening poem, ‘Dysmorphia Blues’ sets out Denny’s stall in rhyming quatrains,
I’ve developed a penchant for chocolate A taste for high heels and red shoes, There’s a woman in shame trapped inside me Craves release, to shed dysmorphia blues.
Google the title if you’re not clear what’s happening here. ‘Alice’s Dream’, an audience favourite, takes the reader further on,
I am nobody’s tranny I am nobody’s bitch Quite simply a woman No more, no bit less.
‘Normal’ is addressed to the sort of ignorant, scared people Denny must have encountered all too often; while ‘Street Cleaning In Athens’ references the unpleasant events happening all over Europe, where
We’re seeing People like us Rounded up and extracted Gathered and tethered Battered and fettered.
All of this in the birthplace of democracy. ‘Women Love’ recounts Danny’s Sapphic tendencies,
I have to confess to a passion for women I adore womanhood And am blessed to be part Of this feminine world – at last It feels so good.
‘Lips and Tongue’ explores this theme further in words that leave no room for misunderstanding; another of Denny’s poems that draws an appreciative audience response. ‘Time is Short’ is a reminder that some writers find their true voice later in life; the young do not have all the best tunes. ‘Kafkaesque’ uses Franz Kafka’s fable of Gregor Samsa to comment on the experience of being discriminated against,
I am the beetle on her back Despised, ignored I used to be adored They said.
‘Perhaps‘ develops his theme, using the trope of stormy weather to explore emotional states,
Perhaps because I’m getting old and know it, With only walking bent and fear of dementia Left to look forward to.
The next poem, however, ‘Clara Bow’, is another audience favourite, a celebratory poem to the silent movie star Clara Bow, a heroine and role model for Denny.
I’m going to shine like Clara Bow, I’m going to shine like Jean Harlow I’m going to shine like Marilyn Monroe.
Stanza 4 continues
Love eludes me, life is tough, But I’m a woman and that’s enough. No-one knows the things I’ve done, That I’m as good as anyone, I’m a star, so are you all.
The poem’s last stanza takes the reader here
Yes, it took me long years for me to find this life, This body to match this mind And I swear to treasure whatever time I’m spared to share with womankind.
The final poem, ‘Country Life’, is a latter-day Pastoral, expressing a desire for a healthy life, not in Brighton for example, concluding
So there I’ll revive in the country Put a sign up for people to see “Here lies poor sweet Alice Denny: Woman, once parent, friend, poet, now tree.
As a parting note this is hard to beat, but then so is the whole pamphlet. Alice Denny is an Absolute Star; she does indeed ‘shine like Clara Bow’, and your entirely unbiased reviewer hopes this publication is entered for any prizes or awards for which it is eligible. For those of you living in East Sussex, Denny can be heard performing her work at Hastings venues such as SlamDunk or Sheer Poetry, Eastbourne’s Poetry Cafe, or Brighton’s Shine So Hard. For Londoners, she will be reading at 4th Friday on May 26th, and at Torriano Meeting House on June 24th. If you haven’t experienced Alice Denny, switch that TV off and get on down.
This pamphlet is available directly from the publisher or from Bookbuster Bookshop, Queens Rd, Hastings and The Bookkeeper Bookshop, Kings Rd, St. Leonards
A version of this review first appeared in the Hastings Independent