Jun 21 2023
Poetry review – HAIL SISTERS OF THE REVOLUTION: Kelly Davis admires Caroline Gilfillan’s tribute to a 1970s band of freedom fighters
Hail Sisters of the Revolution Poems by Caroline Gilfillan, photographs by Andrew Scott, Cowslip Press, 2022, ISBN 978-1-999609-78-8, £10
This beautifully produced book – which was recommended as a Poetry Society Book of the Year, 2022 – combines Caroline Gilfillan’s gutsy, honest poems with Andrew Scott’s moving black-and-white photographs to document a pivotal time in Britain. It’s an intense and joyous collaboration – some of the poems are verbal snapshots, and some of the photographs could almost be described as visual poems.
Hail Sisters of the Revolution celebrates a group of women (‘beer swillers, women’s libbers, / bolshie sheilas’) who broke barriers, grabbed freedom with both hands, had a wild time in 1970s London and ‘changed the world’. Women had briefly tasted independence in the war years, when they ‘welded rivets, tightened nuts’ but ‘in dingy peace time they got chopped down / to size’. So Gilfillan and her friends carried their mothers’ ‘screwed-up hopes, their rage’ when they marched in Trafalgar Square, formed one of the first all-female bands (the Stepney Sisters), heaved amps and speakers up five flights of stairs to play gigs, squatted in empty properties, and braved bailiffs and council thugs.
Caroline Gilfillan is a novelist and dramatist as well as a poet – and many of her poems demonstrate her talent for storytelling and characterisation. She gives us memorable pen portraits of Benni the bass player, with her ‘strong, smooth knuckled’ fingers spread wide; Nony striding into the ‘dimlit saloons / of the DHSS like a gunslinger’; Moira who loved getting her ‘head under a bonnet / to tame a tappet’ and could ‘make a woman purr / like a cat in a lap’. As a musician and songwriter, she also relishes sounds. In “Gig” we hear ‘cannon plug into mixer, jack into socket, hot frizzle of dust frying on valves’. In “Notting Hill Carnival” we see bodies ‘eddied, pulsed, powered by beats’, and smell ‘bruise-bloomed mangoes’ and ‘the neon-squish scent of discarded satsumas’.
These pioneering women weren’t only concerned with their own struggle; they also supported others who were oppressed, like the Bangladeshi family on a Poplar estate who got a ‘ragged hole’ in their window, where a ‘racist, red with rage’ had aimed his airgun. They formed bonds with women like Muriel, who ran the Mile End laundry, did their bra-less washing, heard them singing in the local pub and thought ‘Good for you, ducks.’
Some of the poems made me laugh out loud, like the one where Gilfillan and her friends get a lift in a van belonging to the squatters’ union fixer with his ‘jack-the-lad mouth’. They are thrown around in the back ‘like aggregate in a cement mixer’ and
laughter runs through us like water down a drain as we swing through the white-shine snake of the Rotherhithe.
And sometimes, as a collective, they are almost superhuman:
One bell-rung Sunday they jiggled a mattress in the jaws of the tube train doors and floated it home on their heads.
Perhaps the most lyrical, poignant poems are the ones revealing women’s painfully tender desire for each other, at a time when it was still taboo and therefore often unspoken: the women who ‘held shy hands and snogged in corners’, their ‘hearts beating loud as snare drums’; and the euphoric feeling of being in love:
When our thumbs brush my cells scatter leaving me full of nothing until your mouth wings down, bringing breath, a sealing kiss.
Much has changed since the 1970s, though we all know there are still battles to be fought. Nevertheless, at a time when many of us are feeling helpless and disillusioned, it’s heartening to remember that poets have always challenged the status quo and individuals can make a difference. As Wordsworth once said, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven’.
Copies of Hail Sisters of the Revolution are available by emailing email@example.com