Isabelle Kenyon reviews a collection by Michelle Diaz which combines painful honesty with a sense of hopefulness
Michelle Diaz is an established poet who first began performing her poems in 1998 at Convent Garden’s Poetry Café and was awarded first prize in the Christabel Hope Smith Poetry Competition 2018. Diaz describes herself as having had a very unusual upbringing, so it is no surprise that her new collection, The Dancing Boy, with Against The Grain Poetry Press, starts by candidly explaining that her mother should not have allowed her to be born: ‘Let the caesarean scalpel slip… Instead, have the life that would have saved you’. (p5)
Diaz covers heavy topics with lightness and comedy; birth, both her own and that of her son, is a recurring theme in the collection. The birth of her own son is described as if in film-like snapshots,
I stir my latte with a pregnancy test, it shows up positive. All the waiters do the Macarena. (p17)
These vivid images of manic hysteria and disjointed activity perhaps distort the reader’s initial perception of birth and pregnancy as something to celebrate -we cannot be sure if these lines suggest happy nerves or utter panic. Perhaps it is the latter if we consider the poem, “Dissociation” (p14), which ends:
What we truly are is always on the back row, throwing popcorn, necking with our corpse.
This is a clear example of Diaz’s use of complex metaphor throughout the collection and the sign of a developed poet who carefully considers her words. To me, this implied a kind of self-inflicted chaos and an obsession with adrenaline, danger just too good to avoid completely.
Diaz’s voice as a feminist poet also emerges from this collection. She describes growing up as a ‘good girl’ with the poem, “Keep Your Lion on a Leash” (p11):
Life clags, sticks, hurts like a fist. Swallow that
This is an artful description of the ‘Grin and bear it’ saying, which in this poem generates a tumour, created by the inability to speak. However, by suggesting that women are lions, with all the fierce connotations which this brings, Diaz brings a new meaning to the stereotype that love is a kind of weakness,
send everything love, kill at all with love.
Here love this destructive and unpredictable, part of growing up as a woman with, ‘an army of mothers’.
This collection is dedicated to the poet’s son, Dylan, who has Tourette syndrome. Indeed, the title of the collection, The Dancing Boy, alludes to the ‘pneumatic drill‘ (p20) of each morning wake-up: ‘limb-throw fling’. Her love for Dylan is evident and colourful: ‘Your face is the softest peach.’ (p24). Her bias as a mother is infectious and her desire to,
scrunch the world up, pocket – sized, then feed it to you in pieces you can swallow (p24)
is a heart-breaking testament to the way the world excludes those who are notably different. It also alludes to the way that her son may see the world and process it differently, leaving room for reflection and empathy. Diaz also touches on the physical strength that is required from her to care for her son:
Another auditory barrage of vocal skew. I kiss the grimaces, avoid a flying elbow in the face. (p21)
The determination to take the bad on the chin and see the good in each day is an evident but an admirable struggle. She jokes with black humour that this would be a job requiring the strength of Superman but adds,
I am not Superman. I am his mother (p21)
which nicely twists the poem into an appreciation for her son’s unique qualities.
Diaz describes herself in the poem, “I Am So Much More than the Menopause” (p26):
I have a heart that can take in traumatised mother an alcoholic father a child without an off button. So please be gentle. I am going to cry a lot.
This declaration and self-realisation speaks volumes for Diaz as a person – the unspoken changes of a woman’s body and hormones during menopause is approached head on, but with the full picture of the poet’s life. The stereotype of the nurturing mother as the caregiver is an exhausting image which allows for unrealistic expectations of women. When the poet asks, ‘forgive me’, what she really seems to mean is: ‘I am human. Please accept me for who I am and for my flaws’.
In this collection, Diaz confronts her identity – where she has come from and where she is going. Her love is defined by pain but the poetry is hopeful and her last poem, “Trust your life” (p29) is lasting in its message to her reader – that when we suffer wounds, we need to ‘dive deeper’, instead of giving up.
Isabelle Kenyon is northern poet and the author of Digging Holes To Another Continent (Clare Songbirds Publishing House). She is the editor of Fly on the Wall Press. Her poems have been published in poetry anthologies by Indigo Dreams Publishing, Verve Poetry Press, and Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her book reviews, articles and blog posts have been published in various places such as Neon Books, Authors Publish, Harness magazine and Five Oaks Press.