London Grip Poetry Review – Paula Jennings


Poetry review – THIS IS YOU, DEAR STRANGER: Pat Edwards finds a striking use of form and language plus a depth of emotional intelligence in these complex poems by Paula Jennings


This Is You, Dear Stranger 
Paula Jennings
Red Squirrel Press
ISBN 978-1-913632601

In this collection – the second one by Paula Jennings – the poems are beautifully sequenced to follow the seasons and include some notable Christian and Celtic moments in the calendar. Perhaps the reader is invited to be a voyeur of sorts, like someone stepping out of the shower, seeing themselves reflected back in the mirror “behind the steam”; it’s that slight sense of the detached observer which Jennings masters in these poems.

The skilful ordering of themes and ideas is wonderfully demonstrated from the start. Just look how the glory of red gladioli, bought for just one pound at Aldi, “each flower’s six lips blazing pagan”, segues into a poem with “tall scarlet crested hens”, and then to the “outrageous vulva” of a church’s fertility symbol!

The poet shows no fear and loves to bathe the reader in colour, in images captured from flora and fauna. Bats are described as “each a slung bundle of life”. Water, the ocean, angels, clouds, are all abundant and depicted using vivid, sometimes unexpected language.

As well as occasional melancholy, when the poet expresses loss, there is wry wit and humour. The poem ‘Music at the Drop-In Centre’ talks of folk singing using “at least three different kinds of timing, depending on respective medications”, while ‘Being Kind To Them’ observes a resident whose “smile is a lovely shock”.

Here is a poet whose range is as expansive as the sky she describes in ‘Water: Transformations’. I greatly admired the extraordinary way she brings to life the idea of what might happen to someone in flight:

Once I played with a pilot
sucked upwards
in his parachute,
froze him, lit him
with my blue blades.
He lives, hail-hammered.

The poet is brave enough (if that’s the expression) to even write about ‘Crafting the Work’. Many poets have a go, some more successfully than others, at writing about the process of making a poem, the distractions, the pitfall metaphors such as the ‘fox’, and Jennings is no exception. She goes one step further and even uses this very metaphor later in her poem ‘The Girl is Finding Her Way’!

Continuing her interest in all things belonging to nature, Jennings conjures up a lovely evocation of being followed by cows “like curious children”, which ends with one of them setting its curling tongue upon her, “I am licked into startled life”.

We are again treated to some of Jennings’ delicious humour in ‘Private View’. Here the poet is at a fancy art exhibition where the usual drinks and canapés are being handed out. In a fantastic exchange with the boy waiter, who calls her ‘gannet’, she tells him ‘Fuck you’, observing in her snide tone there’s “so much money in the room”.

As I hinted earlier, this poet has a great range of style and subject matter. Yes, the poems that predominate are ones about the natural world, but Jennings covers so much more, reflecting our place in the world and how we often mess up. One minute she is describing serious, life-threatening illness, the next she is showing us the horror of a girl raped by soldiers, clinging on to the belief she can survive and escape in the truck with its “key hidden under the seat”.

These are not shocking leaps in the hands of this writer, rather carefully considered moments in the real lives of believable characters. Jennings combines narrative, the ability to watch and wait, with striking use of form and language. In so doing, she has written a truly captivating sequence of poems, like a journey through time, through the ordinary and the unusual. To say it was ‘easy’ to read this collection, is not to imply simplicity or anything superficial. These are complex poems at times, going to great lengths to discover a depth of emotional intelligence, and to take the reader on a journey. The experience is rich and rewarding without being a trial or confounding us with unnecessary layers. I guess what I’m really saying is that these are well-crafted poems that make sense and leave the reader feeling they understand the voice behind them, the intent of that lonely figure stepping out of the shower.