Dec 31 2023
Poetry review – DINING WITH THE DEAD: Melissa Todd admires Fiona Sinclair’s skill at re-presenting the everyday as something special
In “Writing Slope”, Fiona Sinclair tells us of the Victorian desk on which she composes her poems, imagining the minds and fingers that have worked with it before her – ‘150 years’ worth of letters…on the slope that is better company than a laptop,/poems personal as letters, posted out/to whom it may concern.’ That analogy is pertinent to this collection, which is aware of its place within history, and the stories that have brought it to fruition, be they personal, societal, political. It tells the secret tales of things unable to speak, inanimate objects, the long dead, forgotten friendships: tales that shift through time. The dead of the title are not only the literal dead, but long ago stories now existing only in memory. In “History Books” the poet gives us her own history through her memories of books, both those she loved and those she wasn’t allowed to read
No library membership. Perhaps a result of Nana regarding borrowed books as ‘riddled’ with germs,’ so baked them in the oven until their covers brown like pastry, before she and her girls were allowed to read.
It’s a delightful concept, expertly executed. Sinclair initially likens reading to a smoking addiction – ‘chain reading. Lord of the Rings sparked Gormenghast kindled Dracula’ and goes on to tell how a teaching career dulled her literary appetite. That appetite was stimulated afresh in retirement, and reconsidered with a new relationship – ‘My books not dowry but dust traps,/shelved in Ikea efforts holding each other up like drunks.’ Books have more than one story to tell, she concludes, and how swiftly and thoroughly have we learnt her own story through this piece.
A repeated lament throughout the book concerns the paucity of language to convey feelings or truths – or rather, perhaps, the preference given to inanimate objects for self-expression. In “Why I Don’t Write About Refugees”, Sinclair explains that telling their ‘Dachau dark stories’ feels exploitative, and we should wait instead for their own voices to be recovered. In “Words Fail” she tells us ‘We need a new language…Until then, there is the anti-language, silence.’
Sinclair also considers the language of tattoos for the baby boomer generation, busily reimagining themselves post-divorce or illness, ‘to write their future/on skin like a refreshed tabula rasa.’ The body’s own language is considered in minute detail, even that of the dead in “Last Rites”, as she makes up her mother for burial. In lesser hands the subject could become mawkish or gruesome, but Sinclair allows us insights with perfect, light-hearted, telling touches – ‘selecting Rimmel/because neither of us ever used the brand’. There’s much playing with language here and elsewhere – her mother ‘would never have chosen to be seen dead’ in her final outfit. The light-hearted refusal to take death seriously is echoed in “Stella” where a woman is reconsidered at her own funeral, ‘a nun in all but habit…camouflaging her gender in neutrals.’
Even though this collection largely tells a woman’s story, there is much tenderness for men and their own struggles to communicate – the school boy who sent her a heartfelt letter to thank her for her teaching, then ignored her in public; the men she meets internet dating, whose pictures tell more than the words they choose: men ‘who bus stop chat about work and their tea’ and struggle to progress; the man in the hospital waiting room
who tossed random phrases at me like a lonely kid trying to entice someone to play ball with him.
Fiona Sinclair has a gift for allowing us to see an ordinary moment with a fresh, clear, extraordinary eye or to take a detail, then examine it with tenderness, until it explains that moment afresh. To read this book is to rediscover some of the joy and wonder in everyday living.