Rosie Johnston appreciates the enthusiasm and energy in Fiona Sinclair’s latest collection
If ‘Aunty Internet’ ever wanted a poet laureate, Fiona Sinclair would walk into the job. “The Time Travellers’ Picnic” is a happy love song to Kim, whom she internet-dated for a bet and describes as ‘a regenerated Dr Who’ with a ‘Jackson Pollock time-line’.
Sinclair’s poetry has been published by Lapwing Publications, Koo Press Scotland, Original Plus Press, Indigo Dreams (twice), Smokestack and now, for a second time, by Guildford’s Dempsey & Windle Press, following A Talent for Hats in 2017. That is eight publications since 2011. Sinclair puts her prolific output down to ‘a good dose of CBT’ (cognitive behavioural therapy) after, as she puts it, ‘a medley of chronic illness terminated teaching’.
Another powerful presence is Sinclair’s mother, whom she introduces in “A History in Clothes”:
At 16, with Janice Joplin hair, I hippy chic strutted into college in charity shop finds. Often yanked home by mother’s married man woes, bust up with lodger, lonely; until became her full-time companion paid in cast-off bras, knickers.
The poem reads like a scatter of old photographs leading us to a romantic holiday in Crete and, at 53, Sinclair’s
first ever beachwear, scarlet one piece with woman of a certain age tummy control. Encountering for the first time all-inclusive holidays meant I spent two weeks falling for third deadly sin, flying home to fully join the middle-aged sisterhood; Weight Watchers, fat clothes, thin clothes. At 55, I work out, fast and sauna like a jockey desperate to make the weight until one June morning, a zip slides up on the nipped in waist of my bright red wedding dress.
Here we have the essence of Sinclair’s style: conversational, so fast that punctuation and full sentence structure would slow it down, memories and revelations tumbling in an artful, glamorous rush. The book’s landscape format accommodates her long, narrative lines and anything less than a glossy, photographic cover for this material would feel underdressed.
Sinclair writes unsparingly about mental health. In “Not a Monster Then”, a memoir extending over three pages, she starts:
I attend this psychiatrist in more cubbyhole than waiting room. Pondering how Freud can cure pelvic pain. After 4yrs (sic) of Maudsley forensically examining my past, I am zipped up as the handbag on my lap at prospect spilling my mind’s contents again. But he is clairvoyant’s tall, dark, handsome promise, augmented by confidence-loosening charm that would make him an ace blackmailer.
The psychiatrist does prise open the ‘tin man secret’ of Sinclair’s upbringing: the ‘drawn bow atmosphere at home’. He ‘prescribes a dozen appointments / for starters, which I later cancel.’ Salvation arrives in another form:
Then, as always, you time your entrance just right. I am gung-ho grabbing life after illnesses’ lengthy sentence. First dates I insist we go Dutch, making it clear I am not to bought for the price of a coffee; but read Dinner next week? as having definite hanky-panky subtext.
These are splendidly happy poems, as free as a fountain whenever she writes about Kim, with the smile of someone trying to work out why she has struck lucky. Not that Kim is always easy to read. In “Trying to Map You”:
Over a year you have wooed me with ripping yarns of life as an engineer overseas: rock star strutting onto Concorde twice, commuting to work on a camel in a sandstorm’ …
Yet, in “Island Weather”
When your small-boy-self visits, I want to kiss eyes that reboot too childhood settings, ruffle hair that reverts to a kid’s quiff … (Other) times I glimpse the teenage biker rucking on Margate Beach, the man whose drinking years were tinder to this temper, hide in silence until the reassuring touch on my knee…
Just when it feels as if the marital rollercoaster might be rocking a little, the poem culminates in this tender couplet:
And when my fault line brain triggers another earth quake he holds me firmly I’m here, till my world stops rocking.
Sinclair’s complex weave of language and images feels like being wrapped in a brocaded patchwork quilt of silks and denim. Yet it is her unsparing honesty, often funny, that keeps us with her. “Not as Young as We Feel”, reproduced here in full, suggests that, for all the physical restrictions, ‘November marriage’ years can be the best of all:
After gourmet sex we entwine like twins in a womb. Doze under exhaustion’s ether. Twenty years ago, even, we would be free to slumber until morning. But in middle age, sleep must be prepared for like a journey, a check list of pills for pain, cholesterol, blood pressure … nightclothes stripped off in present-tearing lust, retrieved from floor and pulled back on, sheets smoothed, pillows plumped, duvet adjusted, the final pee. A Night Night kiss then easing onto back and side, the width of a double bed growing between us.
In “An Ideal Husband”, Oscar Wilde wrote ‘Damn it, sir, it is your duty to get married. You can’t be always living for pleasure’. Sinclair shows with her accumulation of beautifully expressed details about family life, survival and love that it is gloriously possible to do both.
Rosie Johnston‘s four poetry books, published by Lapwing Publications in Belfast, are Sweet Seventeens (2010), Orion (2012), Bittersweet Seventeens (2014) and Six-Count Jive (2019). Her poems have appeared or featured in Hedgerow, London Grip, Culture NI, FourxFour, The Honest Ulsterman, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Mary Evans Picture Library’s Poems and Pictures blog, Words for the Wild, From The Edge magazine and in Live Canon’s anthologies ‘154: In Response to Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ (2016) & ‘New Poems for Christmas’ (2018). She has read her poetry widely, including Hungerford Literary Festival, Watford’s Big Word festival, Winchester’s Loose Muse, the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, the Troubadour, Torriano, Margate’s Pie Factory, In-Words in Greenwich and Whitstable’s Harbour Books. Rosie was poet in residence for the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust until she moved to live by the sea in Kent. www.rosiejohnstonwrites.com