Mar 28 2023
Poetry review – ESCAPE ROOM: Sue Wallace-Shaddad considers Bryony Littlefair’s clever mixing of close observation and free-range imagination
The cover image of this collection by Russian artist Philipp Igumnov, is well chosen. It shows a traditionally clothed woman, maybe from the 1950s, standing next to a picture of a burning building with half a suited figure in front of it, against a background of lightning.This sets the scene for Littlefair’s ability to juxtapose the detail of daily living alongside the surreal.
The collection is written in five parts. The first part focuses on different kinds of employment. In “After graduating” the poet explains, when describing working in bakery, ‘Life buckles you in’. In “First Job”, she describes feelings about the nature of employer expectations in a part-time job in Boots:
[…] I was growing an understanding of what was being asked of me, and I turned the new knowledge over in my closed mouth, like a chocolate coin.
The poem “Wilderness situation” has unsettling lines:
There was a woman with a closed-mouth smile and ambition like a cliff face. I knew that in a wilderness situation, she’d encourage the group to eat me first.
A sense of anxiety reappears in “The assistant”, a claustrophobic poem featuring a dream which ends: ‘What if the dog eats the rabbit? What if the rabbit eats the dog:’ Tension explodes into the surreal in “What a way to make a living!”, where the poet lists actions to relieve boredom:
get on the floor and bite the skirting board gnaw it and gnaw it
“Escape room” which gives the collection its title, uses prose paragraphs to create a scene of characters at ‘Arcantia Investments’ who are in a ‘fraught but ultimately surmountable predicament’. They are in the escape room, being observed. This poem can be seen, in my view, as a metaphor for Littlefair’s observation of life. In “The meaning of employable” she conjures up an interview involving a ‘back flip’ which would mean the interviewee would not get the job
Because I created in everyone a private unease, which is not the meaning of employable, but could well be the meaning of life.
The second section takes the reader mainly to childhood and school days. I enjoyed the imagery in the opening poem, “Sunday mornings”, where the poet has used invented homework
[…] to excuse my godlessness. Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose and endangered, like an undone shoelace
Loneliness appears in the poignant poem “Swallow”, written in couplets, which explores different moments such as receiving communion, being carried off by a boy at a campsite, buying a bracelet. The poem ends ‘I never wear it. I’m lonely all the time’. “Self-portrait at high-school graduation ceremony” uses the repetition of ‘Look’ and ‘Watch’ at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs to submerge readers in the graduation scene. Littlefair surfaces from this deep dive to focus on Claudia – ‘beautiful, talentless, calculating Claudia’ with her ‘all-purpose viciousness’. Claudia has escaped the town ‘burning up the road like a fuse’. In ‘Self-care’, the poet imagines strangling someone who has accosted her outside Superdrug, adding ‘I like making up stories like this’.
The third part of the collection seems to move on to ‘grown-up’ territory. I particularly enjoyed “Dinner parties” with its keen observation of behaviours and emotional truth. Written in five sections, the poem starts with a poem which envisages eating ‘pieces of paper’ rather than food:
and on all the scraps are written the ways we have hurt each other
At the end of the evening, ‘the laughing loosens / like the evening light’ and the attendees ‘get started / on the wine.’ In the third section, the narrator is not enjoying a dinner in a pub:
I don’t like these people much. They make my brain feel like mown grass.
Two other sections are more surreal, with Jesus in the background and the anthropomorphism of ‘the moment’ arriving late at a dinner party.
Littlefair shows her sense of play in the arresting title “In this poem you are in danger”. The title draws the reader in and then the first line starts ‘Not really. Relax’. The poem “The need to buy milk” reads as an expression of urban life, where Friday nights are about watching teen movies
in which people a bit younger than I am are alternately vicious and kind to each other in various outdoor settings.
Section four seemed to me to be more fanciful. It features several therapy-related poems. The poem “Room” takes the form of double-spaced questions and answers about a room with no contents except for a poster with the words ‘This is not a metaphor’. “Fruits” is a lovely poem about sadness seen through the prism of different fruit e.g., ‘Melon sadness: being split in two’. “Some therapists” consists of a list of twelve observations about therapists such as ‘4. Refused to laugh at my jokes, but sometimes a giggle escaped anyway. I started living for those lapses in composure.’ “Men’s Therapy Group” introduces a strange creature: the participants look after ‘the thing, which was wheezing very quietly and had rolled onto its back’. In “Love used to be all I thought about”, the poet writes ‘There is so much to put right’ and ‘My existence is destroying the planet’. The last poem in this section, “Escape” is powerful in its simplicity: ‘I didn’t escape / I fell asleep.’
There are only four poems in the final section of the collection. These are reflective in nature. The first prose poem, “And in the meantime”, ends ‘I am trying to answer a question Ask it’. The next poem has a question in the title “What am I?” The poem which closes the collection, “Legend has it”, ends on a philosophical note:
No-one’s got a watch on and we’re here to see the journey out. Death come get me. Love come get me. We are alive and moving.
Littlefair covers a lot of ground in this collection. She observes the detail of daily life but also lets her imagination roam free and, at times, she draws the reader into an alternative universe