Feb 27 2023
Poetry review – THE THOUGHTS: Wendy Kyle reviews Sarah Barnsley’s very personal debut collection
The Thoughts (2022) is a camp and playful debut collection. But it is by no means, a game. Rather, its depths are hidden in plain sight. Barnsley reworks poetic form using pictorial diagrams, subverted charts and psychotherapy proformas. She uses emojis as punctuation, like a puzzle-maker of poetic space – but it is not a game. The diversity of innovative forms is a challenge to the different spaces in our brains, taking us in and out of mental processes that we have come to expect with the traditional lyric address. This is different territory.
In “The day my brain broke”, two lovers on honeymoon are invaded by the unavoidable arrival of OCD thoughts and “telling my lover things had gone weird”. This is a painful poem – a single unpunctuated running line; an airless little box that lacks the breath for a complete sense-making sentence.
The poem starts part-way with, “was sunny was warm”. The phrase feels woozy, off- balance; unsafe. The tourist train is now a, “suddenly hot torture chamber”. Barnsley creates a claustrophobic linguistic loop, a rocking refrain of dizzy heat. We are crouching in a dissociative spin with the repeated first phrase behaving as hypnotic ellipsis, circling us back to the start of the poem, humming like a brain worm:
warm sunny wine on the old town loop was stuck in a loop stuck South of France was sudden was warm was sunny was hot
From such private pain, Barnsley can change gears without warning. The heightened surrealism and irreverence in “Tainted Ode” is part of the boisterous cartwheeling. It unceremoniously shoves language (even the most earnest of praise poems, the ode) into outlandish imagery, dead-centre in the territory of OCD stereotypes. Fearless.
The speaker in these poems is concerned with the truthfulness of her own lyric address to a love (a love called Dirt): “Dirt, I’m yours; come sweep me off my filthy slippers’. It’s a deliberate ridicule of how OCD terrorises the most intimate of life experiences : “my darling dirty Dirt, I know you’ve kissed a pug’s arse”.
The poet wilfully chases down the surrealist metonym of Dirt and strips it down to the grubby bodily struggle between repulsion and desire:
People say one day I’ll meet the Dirt of my dreams and then I’ll have something real to worry about.
OCD thoughts of germaphobia are so baked into the speaker’s brain (and readers’ stereotypical generalities about OCD anxiety) that even the person she is in love with, has become interchangeable with Dirt. So much so, that the lover’s face is unimaginable without being tainted, even in sexual fantasies. She reminds herself:
but I know in my head it’s not really you.
The speaker both soothes and taunts herself using humour but her thoughts require hardcore self-management to the extent that even making love is not free expression: she is not free from torment, nor free from one’s distancing self-vigilance:
Dirt, what does it take to make you come? What does you face look like when you do?
But to what extent are we allowed to be in on the joke of a person whose illness makes garbage of their own sex-life? The laughs of recognition are there to be had – but Barnsley controls the APPLAUSE sign. We nervously hang between “permission” to laugh at fabulously (often animalistic) bad-taste jokes or, we must catch ourselves being unforgivably ableist. To laugh at what we’re not sure we should be laughing at…that’s the tease; that’s the fun. We’d better be sure, because Barnsley’s poetry goes big – provocative, earthy and sensitively fierce – and she deserves a big response Or simply, for us to give thought to “The Thoughts”.
The poem, “I come through the door like pest control” also reveals the pressure on the partner of an OCD sufferer:
While you talk about how good it is to be home, my head’s in the white van outside, selecting treatments.
The protagonist is simply emotionally unavailable to her partner, thinking instead about:
zipping up a boiler suit on the steps, Twanging the elastic of goggles, latex gloves, covering everything up
To her lover, she “might as well be a cardboard cut-out”. Even loving relationships are rocky and at risk.
Therefore, Barnsley’s frustration at the “treatment” of OCD is a powerful statement in the face of constant threat and trauma in life. She mocks the blunt psychiatric tools as predictable and unsophisticated condescension. “Systems Administrator, Private and Confidential” shows the inevitable backdrop of illness and institution, the recognition of resigning oneself to living in a medical landscape of safe strategies and new theories. In “We Have Made a Number of Key Appointments”, Barnsley exposes the infantilisation of patients as lazily reductive and bureaucratic:
So, it’s agreed: you’re to go round licking toilet seas. The Area Manager has done the rota, set the targets
This debut collection is a schematic for poetic address to one’s own brain, body and to our relationship with illness – none of which are divisible from the other. In a culture where mental health is fraught with ableist stigma, Barnsley energetically reminds us that we have transformative art forms, with which we can break – game face on.
Wendy Kyle is poet and reviewer, most recently published in: Mslexia, The Tangerine. Blackbox Manifold (2022); anthroposcene (2023) and Alternative Field Anthology (2022). She has been shortlisted or featured (as Wendy Orr) in many international prizes including the National Poetry Competition ( 2018) and runner up in Mslexia Women’s Poetry Prize (2019)