DEAD REDHEAD by Tracy Herd, Bloodaxe,
Tracy Herd writes narrative poetry.
The protagonists of the stories she tells in Dead
Redhead, her second collection from Bloodaxe, are all female,
all dead or about to die. And, as Edgar Allan Poe has remarked,
'the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical
topic in the world'. Poetical Herd wants to be, her poems abound
with beautiful, adjective-ridden detail, ‘the white, pleated dress’
of Marilyn Monroe (in 'What Gentlemen Prefer'), the ‘corps de ballet
of pale roses, / the drifting midwinter of swans’ (in 'Black Swan'),
‘the huge, overgrown gardens, the marble // statues, toppled or
cracked or discoloured…’ (in 'The Mystery of the Missing Century').
And beautiful the women in these poems are: Marilyn Monroe, Natalie
Wood, Jean Harlow, Holly Golightly, heroines of the sixties alongside
the obligatory Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ophelia and, alas, Diana,
Princess of Wales (‘with flashbulbs tearing at my broken body /
because broken was the way I felt inside’, in 'Ophelia's Confession').
The poet's focus is on the moment of death, looking for an ultimate
vulnerability. However, she does not succeed here. The names seem
to be employed for name-dropping and for quoting over-familiar detail
(such as Marilyn's white dress), thus merely re-enacting popular
iconography and exploiting it for contextualisation – if the author
has delved more deeply into her subject matter than the average
tabloid, it doesn't show.
'The House of Special Purpose', for instance, which is one of the
more interesting poems in this collection, needs to tell us of the
speaker – ‘I am Grand Duchess Anastasia, / the youngest daughter
of the Tsar’ – spoiling what could indeed have been a haunting poem
about (nameless) executions in cellars. Unfortunately the use of
an icon's name is often the most specific detail in the poems which
otherwise abound with ‘roses’, ‘diamonds’, ‘snow’, with things described
as ‘slender’, ‘elegant’, ‘pale’.
'Breakfast at Tiffanys' [sic], one of the few non-narrative poems
in the book, is exemplary: a villanelle, the two repeated lines
are ‘Holly Golightly haunts the streets of New
and, with progressive alterations in the course of the poem, ‘each
diamond simply a start in the dark’. Later, diamonds are, and are
compared with, ‘tears from the dark’, ‘lovely tricks of the dark’;
‘the stars are her jewels, the night, [sic] her gown’. The last
asks line ‘and each diamond?’ answering ‘just a diamond’ – which
could turn a poem into a reflection of metaphor and simile in modern
poetry – and spoils it by adding ‘lost in the dark’ which, like
other images in the poem, is there for rhyme's reason.
Besides the overuse of familiar images and metaphor, I find the
book suffering from a more fundamental problem: is the tragedy of
a woman's death, or (even) a beautiful woman's death (feminism,
where are you?) all that poetry can convey today? I do not doubt
that Tracey Herd is haunted by these deaths, that she is moved by
beauty, that she can identify with the heroines of her poems – I
doubt, however, that these poems reach beyond that.
STONEPICKER by Frieda Hughes, Bloodaxe, 88 pp, £ 7.95
Stonepicker is Frieda
Hughes' second collection from Bloodaxe, the title poem a verbal
counterpart to the cover illustration featuring one of the author's
own paintings. The woman in this poem remains nameless as most of
the people in these meditations on 'Visitants', 'Black Cockatoos',
'Landmines' and 'Endometriosis'. And, like the painting, the poems
feature stark, abstract land – and mindscapes and a vocabulary that
defiantly does not want to be 'poetic' or pretty.
'Sisyphus', one of the book's most successful poems, sees the protagonist
carrying his wife's dead body across a river:
He reaches the river
Is thick at his ankles.
Her body stinks from
The buckle of his
But the gathered
Will not land him.
Sharp like swords,
and hold him off.
Sisyphus tries to return to the side of the river he came from ,
but finds another (the same?) crowd waiting there, and is forced
to turn again. The poem contains no further explanation, no colours,
none of the 'specifics' contemporary workshops are so fond of, yet
the impression of a Kafkaesque futility is alien and memorable.
Lingering acoustic effects are achieved through a careful application
of nouns (much fewer through verbs) creating a static density that
is further enhanced by the rather conspicuous capitalisation of
The reader is left with mixed impressions: interesting and haunting
poems such as 'Dr Shipman' and 'Conversation with Death' are distinct
from less successful poems 'Driver', 'Beauty 1' and 'The Wound'
(wounds are a recurring image) where the poetic impulse is scarcely
noticeable and the language appears sloppy, the line breaks arbitrary:
It is her mother's
When her mother imagines
Her child might not
It is her father's
For not having a
Like hers, so
Possibly, the poet uses the capitalisation of line beginnings in
reference to the poems by Georges Ryga to whose ‘Ballad of a Stonepicker’
the title seems to allude. However, it is often hard to see how
this aids Hughes' poems. I would like to see the poet try longer
lines with greater syntactical variation and a wider array of images.
Furthermore, many of these poems seem to be written towards the
last line which then contains a turn, an epiphany or a final emphasis
– which causes the poem to
tilt towards the end. I would have liked to see a more consistent
construction and density.
Occasionally, the reader is left to wonder how the editor of this
volume defines her or his role. The poem 'Playground', for instance,
features two children, 'Big girl' and 'Small girl', who are first
introduced without a preceding article; later in the poem, however,
the definite article is reintroduced. In the already mentioned poem
'Sisyphus', the crowd gathered on the banks of the river utters
'words/Sharp like swords'; later the crowd's 'tongues/' are 'Pointed
Stonepicker is an unusual
book in that it does not sport many of the affectations present
in the current English poetry scene (such as half-hearted attempts
at formalism); instead, its language is terse, almost
stark with some interesting sound effects.