Nov 27 2022
Poetry review – UNBOTTLED: Emma Storr explores the mysteries outlined in the poems in Olivia Dawson’s pamphlet
Unbottled is a beautifully produced pamphlet. It is an intriguing story of mystery and discovery but also one of abandonment, loneliness and lost opportunities. Olivia Dawson uses varied and innovative poetic forms to reveal tantalising fragments of information, reflecting the narrator’s experience of searching for a missing relative. The Prologue, ‘Spitting into Bottles’, sets the scene. We learn there are secrets in this family and relatives who are unaware of each other’s existence. Two generations back there is an unknown grandfather whom the narrator is keen to track down by providing a saliva sample for DNA testing:
…I spit into a bottle to find my mother’s mother’s runaway lover I spit into another bottle to find the mother of my mother’s mother’s lover,
Inevitably, the search raises questions about the narrator’s own identity and the traits she and her immediate family may have inherited, themes that recur throughout the pamphlet. Several poems have a title that includes the word ‘Alternative’, emphasising how the narrative could have been different.
Unbottled is divided into three parts. We start with the narrator’s mother, the illegitimate child who had been put into a children’s home. In ‘Once Upon a Time’ we learn the girl was later adopted. Some words in this poem are in a fainter font, perhaps to suggest the girl’s unconscious. She is lonely and when she meets a boy in Slipshatch Wood she senses:
this boy was her missing part. She threw him her torn heart unravelled from her sleeve, but still felt hollow inside – she fretted her DNA might display unloveable strands of angora goat.
The young woman’s extreme vulnerability is evident.
Moving forward many years, we encounter an erasure poem, ‘Finding the Lost Village i’, from the narrator’s mother’s diary of 1962. The stark words widely spaced on the page add to the sense of dislocation and loss experienced by the adult revisiting her childhood trauma. ‘Finding the Lost Village ii’ dated 13th September 2021, is in the voice of the narrator. Short couplets detail the weather and physical attributes of the place where her mother lived. The poem ends poignantly:
(I) kneel where my mother knelt on dinted knees while she waited for someone to love her.
In Part 2 of the pamphlet we move back in time to ‘My Mother’s Mother’, starting with a sensual poem ‘Possible point of departure’ that explores the encounter that resulted in an illegitimate baby being born, the narrator’s mother. The short couplets reflect the brief time this relationship took place and the urgency of sexual desire. Two more erasure poems from the mother’s diary of 1963 appear in this section of the pamphlet: ‘Strangers’ and ‘Tell me’. The white space between lines, as well as the choice of words, skilfully evoke the pain and loss involved.
Shock baby no help no trace posed false name tears
Because the poem is composed of actual diary extracts, it is even more powerful emotionally. At the same time, the detective story continues to unfold. The poems ‘Mismatch’ and ‘How to Cut and Fit your Sweetheart’ suggest the fragility of relationships and manipulation of women by men. ‘Mismatch’ is a concrete poem written as a leaning tower and contemplates the brief relationship between the unknown grandfather and the grandmother. The ‘flawed foundations’ foreshadow the end when:
One day pieces will concertina, crush anyone struggling to escape unbroken.
‘Alternative Choices’ appears to be a poem about the narrator’s grandmother in later life. The clever use of options shows us the complex decisions this woman had to make in her life:
She scrawls lists of moments/mistakes/triumphs she enjoys/regrets/forgets
She is also reluctant to give up information and ‘dodges the clues’. However, in Part 3 My Mother’s Mother’s Lover, we are getting closer to discovering the missing man. ‘Alternative Pathways’ appears in the form of two chromosomes, listing family characteristics in repeating phrases with slight variations across four generations. It’s an imaginative way of wondering about heritage, a theme that is continued in the poem ‘Ballerina on a Bucking Bronco’:
rumour says he’s a storyteller, but my sister rides horses like an acrobat, my brother enjoys stalking, sneaks on his belly, cap sprigged with purple heather, I’m a ballerina, arms lifted to the stars like a cartoon cactus.
Unbottled gives the pamphlet its title and we return to DNA testing and the revelation of ‘the untold gift of one hundred and six Texans’. The genetic links between the narrator and her relatives is presented in striking images of a ‘ribbon of spittle’, ‘a leafy tree’ and ‘a string of festive bunting’. A list of names follows and the need to unravel the secrets before ‘they shy away’:
from the double twist of mother & daughter & shuffle all ties, masking the scent of my mother’s mother’s lover.
‘Traits Report’ is a found poem with a delightful list of surprising attributes such as ‘a 73% chance / of my big toe being sweeter than my asparagus odour’.
We learn a little more about the mysterious grandfather and in ‘Finding Robert’, the text is arranged on the page in a picture frame shape of factual snippets. Robert’s name is in the centre and in the next poem ‘Alternative Scenarios’, the narrator finally gets to see his photograph.
The Epilogue, ‘Just this Once’, is short and touching:
I want to see my grandparents together. Jeanne & Robert
Unbottled is a highly original pamphlet, often experimental in its poetic form and always successful in evoking the strong emotions involved in family research. It is a pleasure to re-read and discover more depths to the poetry each time as well as enjoying the fascinating story involved.