Nov 10 2023
Poetry review – THE YEAR OF TWO WINTERS: Rennie Halstead admires Emma Storr’s eye for detail and her skill in creating vivid images
There is so much to like in Emma Storr’s latest book. The collection is brimful of excellent poems, and the problem for this review has been what to leave out. Storr has a sharp eye for personal detail, painting lasting images with great economy. Three themes stand out in this collection: love / family; male abuse and female power.
Amongst the family poems is “Constantine”, an affectionate recollection of Storr’s mother: ‘Mother is knitting a saga […] It takes seven years’ and most of the work takes place in the attic: ‘in the sky of our house’ where she ‘disappears for slow ticked hours.’ Storr creates strong visual images that bring the everyday to life. The absent-minded childcare means that the children seem to run wild in an idyllic childhood where:
I don’t have a bath for weeks and weeks. Mother believes seawater cleanses, even my pigtail, my sandy feet.
This is a very different picture from the one presented in “Peril”, which examines the breakdown of a marriage through the eye of a child who believes it is her responsibility to hold the marriage together. The pain of both the parents and the child observer is drawn in painful detail. The child is powerless, on the periphery of the destruction that she is witnessing, which is recorded in the lonely refrain ‘And me’ – a reminder that children may not be the protagonists in a marriage breakdown, but suffer collateral damage. She watches them ‘tear / apart. A slow wrench that left them / both injured, raw.’ Her father wears ‘guilt like an overcoat.’ whilst mother types letters, with carbon copies, saying how ‘bloody miserable’ she is. The relationship falls apart:
They survived, separately […] When she died, he unravelled
Storr’s relationships are picked up again in “Falcon”. Her sharp observation of the cruelty of nature is linked back to her position in the family. She describes the falcon with
kill leaking from beaks ripped pigeon or crow flesh fed to gaping yellow mouths
But Storr brings out a truth of nature, that competition is built into survival. She shows how one of the three chicks ‘strains to be fed, trembles / against its heavier siblings.’ and applies the image to her own childhood where she was in competition with her sisters and, being the smallest, ‘learned to play / the trump card at home’ competing not so much for food, but for affection:
incriminating my sisters so the tastiest parts of my parents’ love were mine. And I lived.
Storr picks a different way of looking at relationships in “A topographic map of the past”. She shows us the map of her mind, establishing the independent self, redrawing the world into a map that has less of a relationship with geography and more with personal meaning. London is relegated, pushed back ‘behind the moors and dales.’, whilst Cornwall is moved, ‘centre stage,[…] the blue and white stripes, yellow sand’ refreshed and dunes and lighthouses added to the remembered landscape. California and New Zealand move across her imagination, are catalogued into memory, but in the end:
The future taps me on my left shoulder. I don’t turn round. I’m busy making paths across the cliffs towards a headland lookout point, lost in the fog.
Storr moves away from memory and reminiscence in the beautifully atmospheric “Selkie”. Here she explores a different side of being a woman, drawn to become her true self. The woman slips away to the sea, recognising that she can only be her true self if she abandons other people’s expectation. She slips on her ‘sea dress / black and sleek.’ and doesn’t look back. Storr brings the scene to vivid life. Barnacles ‘crackle in the foam’. The selkie is ‘stroked by kelp’s / slippery blades.’ She forgets everyone:
I leave land for water, salt, for the floating moon.
However, there’s more to this collection than just flights of fancy or family reminiscence. “Yorkshire pudding” shows us a different side of Storr’s writing, a concern about how women are treated in a patriarchal society. The poem has a deceptive beginning, with a: ‘shiny stain of grease / a crescent scar on / the damask wallpaper.’. The target of the thrown pudding finds the situation amusing, swears and laughs:
until she’d plunged the fork prongs straight into his bulging veins.
Storr describes how his body ‘quivered, slumped / forward into his plate.’ and how the ‘rivulet of red / fell on the floor.’
The woman, relieved but still living her everyday role:
scraped the pudding up. Closed the door.
A different take on the way women are abused by entitled men is shown in the chilling sonnet “Devotee”, this time through the behaviour of a stalker who ‘knows the bus she takes, the nights she’s out / at choir’. He writes, rings her mobile at night leaving her afraid as:
Her dustbin disappears. The cat leaves home. She lies awake and grips a weighted sock.
Men are put in their place in “Insomnia”, a delicious take on the importance of men. A woman attempting to get to sleep looks back, takes stock of a lifetime of relationships. The self-importance of so many men, blown away as they are envisaged as sheep lining up:
in single file queuing to pass through an ancient squeeze stile.
only to be disposed of when the sleeper in drowsy, when: ‘ I slaughter the rest, then drift off at last.’
My favourite poem in the collection is “Explorer”. Storr takes inspiration from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s ‘Swineherd’ and in a beautiful imaginative flight creates a great poem looking at the retirement of an explorer who finds her ‘kaftan, and open-toed sandals,’ and sets off across the desert, turning his/her back on tourists and heads for the solitude of the desert:
At night, I’ll shake out my clothes, my stiff legs, lie in a scoop of sand under constellations I can’t name, a nomad at sea in heatwaves, salt. I will trust only the camel and go on.
This is an excellent collection. Storr has a sharp eye for detail and a great way of developing an image on the page. She takes the reader to the scene, immerses them in the action, and makes them think. Well done.