London Grip Poetry Review – Laurie Bolger

Poetry review – SPIN: Pat Edwards appreciates the way that Laurie Bolger makes engaging poetry out of rather commonplace experiences


Laurie Bolger
smith doorstep 
ISBN 978-1-914914-70-6

This pamphlet is the winner of The Poetry Business International Book and Pamphlet Prize judged by Hannah Lowe, so the reader can expect to be in for a treat. The title, Spin, sets up many possibilities. For example, are we in the territory of putting our own spin on things; is the writer getting in a spin or planning to put the reader in one; are we talking the spin of a coin, wheel, plate, the planet? Perhaps a clue lies in the thread which runs through the poems, the often female obsession with doing exercise to keep our weight down, so perhaps the title is taken from the poem “Spin Bike 53”. This poem, ostensibly about a spin class, charts the pressure many women feel to conform to expectations about their appearance ‘in small towns where women/take their joy out with the bins’.

In the opening poem, “Big Drop”, Bolger plays with the range of drinks people might encounter, from coffee in the morning to a beer at the end of the day. The poem is full of words that evoke sound – ‘sip’, ‘sup’, ‘fizz’, ‘ahhhhh’, and even ‘chanting’. However, the poem is about so much more than this and takes a surprising turn in the last few stanzas, talking about women who get called ‘one of the lads but’ who are not ‘allowed at the stag’. This feeling of exclusion, of not quite belonging, is one that reoccurs, as does the troubled dynamic that can exist between men and women.

One of the strongest examples of poems about the pressures some women feel is “SILVO” which reads like a rule book of all the things people demand, all beginning with the negative command ‘don’t’. Many of these may start in school, like ‘don’t fidget’, but others follow girls into later life such as ‘don’t be mutton dressed as lamb’ or hide the chocolate on the top shelf and ‘reach for it when no one is watching’. Following fast on the heels of this poem is “Birds” which covers similar territory and includes the desperate cry ‘are you not sick of this shit?’ The final image is of girls out on a hen night, seagulls eating their vomit, one of them having a pee while their mate keeps watch, later sharing a bucket of greasy chicken wings. There is something sad yet rebellious about this band of women ‘like warriors’, out on the town and just a bit out of control.

The poet has started us on this journey around the typical lives of some women. She continues in “Boxes”, with imagery suggestive of all the constraints and taunts that plague us, the boxes that surround us. There are the places we call home, some of them cramped and overpriced, others fine and expensive. There is even a girl ‘running onto a football pitch’ and thus escaping the box that says she can’t or shouldn’t.

Bolger is not afraid to experiment with the long poem form, the prose poem if you will. Her “Roadside Café” occupies four pages and feels filmic, a surreal imagining of a doomed love affair. There are echoes of the vaguely familiar from films I might be recalling. I’m also reminded of Edward Hopper, but more than this I think there are times when the poet is pouring scorn on romanticised love: ‘He doesn’t look up from his mixed grill even when our/song is playing.’

Another poem in the pamphlet, “Stars”, is similarly quite long and again reads a bit like the screenplay for a film, setting out the scenes, a relationship, the strangeness of human encounters. “Scenes Involving a Kitchen Table” is shorter but also makes the reader feel like a voyeur of domestic matters, some of which feel quite real, possible, credible. Maybe Bolger’s great strength is that she can draw the reader into worlds which feel similar to our own and thus make us examine the ordinariness, the weird and wonderful ways we play out our days.

Poems about Boxercise and yoga, doing the laundry, lessons we learn about how to be a woman, what we inherit from our mums, all continue the feminist theme, but the final poem in the book, “The Things I’ve Tried”, takes us somewhere else. There is such a sense of loss and sadness; the poet is trying to come to terms with losing someone who is no longer there. I think there is enough evidence in the poem to believe this may be a lover who says ‘we have a laugh though don’t we?’, the post bearing ‘both our names’, the house that ‘carves out the best places for romance’. The line ’10 Easy Meals for When You Fail at the Fairytale’ and someone’s clothes in a drawer, make the reader feel that the love affair wasn’t a great success, was flawed and was ended. Once again, we may feel the familiarity of episodes in our own lives, note the sheer humanity and find the whole thing relatable even if it isn’t true.

These poems feel very fresh, despite raising topics which are not new or untried. I think it is Bolger’s playful and sometimes unexpected use of imagery and language that are the real attention-grabbers. There is a youthful vibe which is endlessly appealing, and the ever-present feeling you are being taken on a rollercoaster ride, bumping into situations, characters, memories you’d sometimes rather forget. Did we really do that? Was I ever that person? – these are questions the poet throws at us unapologetically and with sparkling confidence. Although there is plenty of comic observation and invention in these poems, there is also an invitation to reflect and consider how men and women treat one another and how we might do it better.