Carla Scarano appreciates the humour in a collection of poems from Heather Moulson drawing on the comic-book world of the 60s and 70s
Bunty comic strips inspired Heather Moulson’s engaging pamphlet from Dempsey & Windle. It twists and adapts the stories and themes of the comic book to the memories and experiences of a girl living in the 1960s and 1970s. Heather Moulson describes this world with hilarious undertones that fascinate the reader who briefly forgets the grimy sometimes brutal reality she is narrating. With a bit of laughter, life is worth living in spite of some disappointments and frustrations.
The stories she tells in her poems are reminiscent of the Four Marys or Lisa’s stories; they are about family, school, girlfriends and boyfriends. However, Moulson’s poems rarely have a romantic clear-cut ending but a final punch line that humorously points out the contradictions and inconsistencies of being human. As Dónall Dempsey remarks in the introduction, her poems are monologues that ‘capture the reality of the 70s … [with] its faults and foibles and glory.’ Her ironic humour involves the reader in paradoxical anecdotes that reverse the expectations without warning and grip the reader’s imagination. What seems ideal and impeccable at first is subsequently exposed as lies, weaknesses and contradictions hidden beneath a thin layer of apparent respectability. Reality is often rough both in the family and at school where friends bully and betray you, but humour comes to the rescue and brings new energy that helps survive in spite of disappointments, loneliness and disloyalty.
The family advertised in Quality Street boxes that the protagonist admires does not look like her own family:
Why do I have to come back to such a shithole?! A fusion of strip lighting and cold lino, the coal fire warming our fronts while our backs shiver. No-one would look at our crude lighted window with such envy! Anyway, it faces the back! (“Why”)
Casual swearing comes naturally in Moulson’s poetry. It releases tensions and frustration, and triggers humour, revealing spontaneous inner thoughts in a direct dialogue with the reader:
But please don’t come to mine. Mum will get shouty, and charge about putting bread on plates, and turning the telly off the moment you spoke. Not noticing that you wouldn’t give a rat’s arse! (“Tea Time”)
The artificiality of apparently pristine families or settings is often unexpectedly reversed, unsettling the expectations of the reader and creating humour:
Sod you, Sunday night tea, you were disgusting. Picking at winkles and whelks resembling snot, along with grey gritty shrimps bought from some terrifying man, shouting his wares. … Once, my gran (from the seaside) came round, and the room lit up in a very different way. After tea, she gave me a lolly and I sat on her lap. My stomach growling dangerously, I was sick all over the mantelpiece. … That was the best Sunday night I had ever had. I warned them about that beetroot!! (“Sunday Nights”)
The sixties do not seem to be a happy time for the protagonist with ‘violent parents,/and slappy teachers.//Bastard free school milk. Grim and curdling,/uninviting,’ (“Sixties Seasons”); they are marked by boredom and confusion. The seventies, instead, look more promising, once the protagonist is a teenager:
But 1975 brought a sub-world of discos, cheesecloth and Dynoflex. Half-lagers, and self-esteem. Waking up, approaching womanhood, those dark, bastard days behind me, the grim journey almost over. Oh Seventies, you saved my skin but I still held a grudge. (“Seventies”)
However, there are disappointing relationships still to be faced, especially with girls, who are idealised at first in their ‘white blond pigtails, and/creamy skin.’ The comic side is prompted by a reversal technique when the ‘perfect’ friend is revealed as disloyal:
When we said goodbye on that cold winter step – you to Norfolk, me to bastard school – I’m sorry I didn’t write back straight away. … But shouldn’t you also say sorry to me? Telling tales to Mrs Jones, Turning on the tears when your Mum was coming. Accusing me of taking money in front of the whole class. Calling me names at your birthday parties in the presence of all those golden girls who wouldn’t give you the steam from their piss. When I was the only one there who would. (“I’m sorry”) These bigger girls! Where do they come from?! With their feather cuts and hot pants. Pink bras in the changing room. Glistening wet look boots up the disco. … My mate says they’re scrubbers – well, she whispers it. I asked how you get to be one of them – and the cow told the whole school!! (“Bigger Girls”)
This reversal tactic exposes lies and fabrications, creating paradoxical situations that generate humour and eventually release energy and life. Love and hate mingle in a natural need of relationships that are never easy and straight.
As the protagonist progresses towards womanhood, boyfriends and sex become central:
Oh, Evelyn, where have you gone? I miss those teatimes with you, ripping off your school tie, before you did the same to my Sindy doll, putting her to bed with Action Man. (“Evelyn”) Why did I never get a boy I fancied? What did I do that was so wrong? And here I am, making awkward conversation with someone called Mike. Two spare parts together. … It’s Dave I want. Julie gets loads of blokes – she wouldn’t notice one missing! (“Boys”)
Once again, the narrator’s attitude is unexpected, unsettling the reader, contradicting their expectations and defying conventions:
Oh, Joyce, with your greasy hair and sebaceous skin, What have you got that I haven’t? Why did Brian Penn take you in the back of his van, and not Me? All it took was a bag of chips. I would have done it for far less! (“Joyce”)
The apparently innocent voice reveals desires which are honestly acknowledged, generating a straight contact with the reader. When finally love comes, it is with a married man her parents refuse to accept:
I kept the crushed fag packet under my pillow – Silk Cut. Long empty, of course. He bought them for me even though he was nearly skint. That meant he loved me, didn’t he? … Mate comes round: says he’s going out with Renata, a year above me, red hair, does it with anyone who asks nicely. How could he? Our whole future swept aside for the nearest scrubber! Didn’t those twenty fags mean anything? (“The Cigarette Affair”)
Moulson’s poems are not only engaging and entertaining, her lines also reveal the skilled use of line breaks and punctuation that highlight her reversal technique and underline irony. Her word choice is particularly effective in conveying her ideas straightforwardly in a fresh conversation with the reader. It is interesting to note that Moulson is also a comic strip creator and self-published a small book about her black cat Dobby. Her cartoons appeared at first on Facebook and are now collected in Conversations with Dobby’: My life with a feline literary critic. It is a delightful account of her controversial relationship with the overcritical cat, who never keeps his bitter comments for himself. The comic strips are original and provoking like her poetry, a singular way of putting things bluntly yet innocently.