Dec 4 2023
Poetry review – MINISKIRTS IN THE WASTE LAND: Chris Hardy embarks on the life journey retold in these poems by Pratibha Castle
These sixteen poems take the reader on a journey through a time past, but not lost because it is here in the book, which is not an elegy or lament but a fascinated and fascinating resurrection. We start with the title poem, in a Roman Catholic school, mid 1960’s. The revolution has begun: rock music, a Biba skirt ‘two fingers below peril level’, Vespas, a Buddhist monk self-immolating in Vietnam on TV, ‘a tin of pills’, and the risk taking too has begun, ‘all week she checks her knickers’. The fervent language makes adolescence sweat off the page.
Soon we are in the crowded, brightly coloured, scented streets of Notting Hill, ‘the Gate’, in the late 60’s: markets, ‘Head shops’,
The air a ferment of patchouli, rotten apples “Love the One You’re With” coasting out of an open window. [“In The Attic”]
Next we are meeting the locals who’d always lived there, ‘Princess Margaret scarves/ knotted tight as knuckles/ beneath their chins’ ( from “Lizzie’s Trip Down Portobello”), who find their familiar streets full of young people from elsewhere, dressing and behaving very differently to anything they’d seen before: Notting Hill was then a working-class district of cheap, dilapidated rental basements and bedsits, which the incomers could afford.
The basement door creaked open to a skank of damp.
The Vietnam war, fought by youths who shared the social and moral revolution of the time, was an ever-present background to the huge upheaval brought about by education, drugs, the pill and the spending power of the young. Young men from the USA brought their new West Coast culture to Europe, encountering here a potent emerging culture of music, fashion, style and sex, ‘.. she kissed Dwayne’s scars,/ heard tales of paddy fields and/ mortar brash as fireworks/ watched on weed.’ (“My Saviour”). The poems use precise, pinned-down details and language to evoke the fear and desperate anxiety engendered by the war, seething beneath the confident display in the streets and in the music,
.. russet leaves blitzing rubbish bags outside my Chelsea flat where I loitered .. …..chewed split ends watching for the post.
Then an airmail letter, ‘.. like a moth/ blue as your eyes’ which bluntly states ‘This dude dropped by/ Jeff’s missing/ Jeff’s sister June’ (from “When I Read About The War”).
From these impassioned poems of acute encounters in which innocence learns fast and painfully, we are brought to a pause, a moment of peaceful contemplation, in “Leaven”. A young woman, pregnant with, ‘A tiny Buddha’, makes bread, ‘chuckles at the jumping bean/ jab beneath her ribs’ and in an apt, expert metaphor, ‘Coaxes loaves/ out of their tins/ as if from cradles’.
We are then taken with the hippies and the Beatles to India in “Seeking Moksha”, a wry, ironic portrait of how young Europeans came to India, expecting immediate and pure transportation to a higher spiritual plane only to encounter the reality of village life in a hot, poor, ancient, tropical civilisation:
Known back home in Hove as Sue, Radha renamed by a local guru, opens the fridge on a rust of ‘roaches.
But then, as in the first anxious discovering of how to cope in London, away from home and safety, we are shown that – despite the difficulties of trying to live, not as a tourist but as an inhabitant of the ordinary streets and lanes of Goa – the reason for being there, the search, does bear fruit. “To The Beach” is a fine ending to the book, a return to the mother, childhood, Ireland in India, and a freed butterfly, a soul.
She pauses by a jasmine. Sips scent of snow-star blossom. A butterfly writhes In spider mesh .. Breaking the threads, she cradles the butterfly in vaulted palms. The creature flaps, stills As she picks it free.
This carefully arranged sequence of poems recreates a quest, a rite of passage, from school, through the city, sex, war and birth, to India. This experience has been undergone by many since then, but at the time it was a rare way of life, that has now vanished. It is here revived and celebrated, not mourned, in forceful poems made with incisive imagery, and exact, exuberant language. The intent is to lay on the reader the power of a whole world of unique, revelatory experience.