May 18 2023
Poetry review – GOLDHAWK ROAD: Colin Pink enjoys the vivid impressions and recollections conjured up in these new poems by Kate Noakes
Goldhawk Road, Kate Noake’s eighth collection of poetry, is witty, insightful and packed with vivid impressions and memories. It covers a lot of ground but one of the principal themes that emerged for me was the sense of identity, and how that sense of identity fluctuates, is sometimes confident, at other times fragile.
The book is divided into three sections: Home, Away and London Trees. The first two sections reflect on the experience of the formation and development of the self, either at home or ‘away’ such as growing up in Australia or living in France. The final section is a sequence of poems inspired by different types of trees, from the plane trees in Berkeley Square (sans nightingales) to a Giant Sequoia at Crystal Palace via a very disturbing poem about genocide in Cambodia.
The feeling of not quite belonging is brought out neatly in the opening poem “Flat Holm/Steep Holm” with its refrain: ‘Too Welsh for the English / Too English for the Welsh’. The poet senses she belongs on the border of things ‘…I should make my home / in the middle of the Severn estuary’. In the second stanza she becomes an oystercatcher and an eel; in the third stanza ‘I am a wild peony and golden samphire’. This constant sliding of identity leads to a queasy pantheistic feeling of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
In “Waiting for Ikebana, Mayfair” Noakes casts an acerbic eye over this chi-chi part of London with its bored shop assistants dousing themselves in expensive perfume, where ‘Well-heeled ladies take lifetimes / choosing precipitous shoes’ and ‘A preened young man / shows off his grooming / on video chat.’ The poet is
about to do precise things with flowers. I know we are living in the end of days. Still, there is art.
This brooding sense of living in the modern equivalent of the last days of Imperial Rome is another theme that permeates the collection.
In “Growing Up for Boys” the poet remembers ‘The morning I wake and find I am / growing a pair of attractive boobs’ and choosing her first bra after ‘much argument with Mum, / supported by the tape measure lady’ she finally gets it, though hers is white: ‘It is also available in whip-crack black’.
Another reminder of childhood is an excellent ‘found’ poem called “Old Nature Writing” which consists of extracts from Ladybird books about birds, for example: ‘The Linnet’s call is rather like / someone playing the banjo’ or ‘The Great Tit makes a call that sounds / very like a squeaky bicycle pump.’ It also contains innovative ways of measuring things: ‘The Goldcrest weighs the same as / an envelope and half a sheet of notepaper.’ It doesn’t specify if it is Basildon Bond, but somehow I think it probably is. It ends with sound advice: ‘No-one should ever kill owls / they are much too useful.’
The ‘Away’ section of the book opens with vivid memories of growing up in Australia such as “The Wendy House, Adelaide” with its:
Indoor air, thick with motes and the smell of hot wood, creosote seeps from its bones, oil puddles the boards leaf flakes, scent of faint eucalyptus
The poem creates a sense of decayed gentility:
…curtains at tiny windows, translucent gingham hanging in threads, home for paint-chipped, broken furniture headless dolls…’
“Collected in 1968” is an exquisite poem that provides a kaleidoscope of impressions of Australia, starting with contemplating a boomerang and ‘All she has to do is let the boomerang / take her back decades to the red land, / scent of eucalypts…’ The poem concludes with a visit to a drive-in movie and
…a metal slide so hot it can flay skin, even at dusk under the shadow of the giant screen and through her nightie. Tired play. The grown up hours are all talk, after which, you have to unhook the speaker from the half-closed window and not pull away with all those words.
Yes, the grown up hours do tend to be all talk, but with this book of poems in our hand we can safely move off with all the words.