New Girls by Sue
The Weight of Cows
by Mandy Coe,
Laughter from the Hive
by Kate Foley,
all Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Avenue, Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1BS
and death may be the real subjects of poetry, but there are a lot of poems
around about paintings, and about childhood as well. All three of these poets
write about childhood – by no means exclusively, but enough for this to be
one axis of comparison.
About half of Sue Dymoke’s first full collection The New Girls is poems from earlier
pamphlets, including the title poem with the new girls at school who
stole them forever.
In ‘Transformation’ Dymoke describes her mother hairdressing at home, and in
an understated conclusion, how she later needed a wig herself. Her father
appears in ‘The Shed’ with all its smells, where ‘Old furniture waited for
transformation.’ Dymoke herself is in the swimming pool with a teacher who
feel the chlorine bubbling up our noses
we struggled to complete a single length
touching the bottom,
gripping the sides,
In the new poems an aunt takes the child to an assignation with her
‘occasional friend’; she cancels an order for wool in ‘Janet’s’: ‘a hushed
world where voices spoke of / the ‘op’ and the ‘things they didn’t let him
know’.’ Dymoke’s is an informal and cheerful voice, much more at home in
free-form reminiscence than when it is crushed into a ‘Weekday Sonnet’. She
evokes her past for us, but doesn’t take it anywhere: these are poems you get
Mandy Coe’s voice is energetic. The Weight of Cows opens with ‘The Art of Dying’,
and the first line: ‘We were nine years old when we killed Brendan.’ The poem
gathers momentum until the speaker encounters Brendan’s dad:
with my cheek pressed
the sharp, damp grass, I felt
safety of being dead.
The childhood moment has been opened up from the particular to the general.
She returns to the violence that lurks beneath play later in the book with
‘In the Tongues of Guns’, a poem in which one girl refuses a girl’s role
Fisher was hanged from the willow tree
rehanged until she agreed
make the sound of her own neck breaking.
But it’s not at all dark collection. ‘Becoming Short-Sighted’ is typical of
the light humour which comes effortlessly to Coe: ‘and even the oldest / of
friends look good. Hell / even you look good.’ It’s that ’Hell’ that makes
all the difference; Coe’s language is easy and vigorous. It’s peopled with a
wild collection of speakers: a chocolate polisher, an embroiderer, a fool, a
pickpocket with a compulsion to confess as well as pick pockets, a shoe-shop
assistant who says in her second stanza:
pursed, the women posed
six-inch heels, while we crouched
nylon carpet, looking up and longing
them to trip over and die.
You can absorb these poems in one read, yes, but they’re worth revisiting for
their energy and surprises.
Kate Foley is altogether more ambitious. The final poem of Laughter from
the Hive runs
to eleven and a half pages, and it isn’t in sections either. It’s a sustained
attempt to integrate childhood influences into the adult’s present narrative.
At least that’s how I read it; ‘The Bleeding Key’ isn’t a poem that you can
‘work out’ easily. But then, neither is the way that a child’s experience
bears on the adult s/he becomes.
The key in question in this poem is in the poet’s bag as she arrives home
slightly drunk, but her fingers find
shiny teeth in a pool.
pulls it out. Shakes.
and we know that this is also a metaphorical key, something alive, the key to
who she is. And it’s a scary key as well: ‘A black drop / collects on its
silver snout’. In fact it scares her so much, it has be plastic-wrapped and
put in the fridge. ‘There’ she prays
its wounds slow
congeal, its vivid weeping
A small corpse
in a Sainsbury’s bag.
After bagging the Yale, the poet sleeps – now the dreams and memories of
childhood take over through a turbulent and disturbed night, the fridge and
‘its undigested load’, still there in wakeful moments. Past conversations,
smells, companions, occasions: the significant moments – not necessarily
related to each other - accumulate in this sleeping/dreaming, so that the
body of the poem is an accretion of childhood moments brought into the
present by the key references. In the morning, the hung-over poet, now
unafraid, takes the key from the fridge: it smells of ‘meconium and blood’:
something (the adult?) has been born.
That’s my reading of this long piece, but it’s long and complex and I know of
one reviewer who read it differently. I’m not altogether comfortable with
this extended real/metaphorical role for a key; oddly it isn’t so convincing
in its real role as in its metaphorical one: it’s too much of a contrivance.
But I admire the extended endeavour to DO something with childhood memories
and bring them forward as an influence in adulthood.
Foley does the same in some of the shorter poems earlier in the book as well.
‘The Man on a Bike’ brings both a child’s and an adult’s understanding of an
incident into view at the same time; in ‘Ash’ the adult looks back on the
child’s memory with
man from the bus garage
am so sorry. Although
remember the terrible ache
your face I couldn’t have done it.
then, not now
The collection covers more ground than this though. Foley lives in Amsterdam;
looks around with a stranger’s eye, listens to new words, like the ‘Zin’ of
the opening poem, and is quite happy to make you think about words: ‘the
wild, metasable state of glass’ (‘In the Frame’). ‘Bare Faced’ darts neatly
around the meanings of those two words.
‘Living Below Sea Level’ isn’t about Holland (though there are Dutch friends
in this collection, and poems about them are simpler and warm) but turns out
to be another metaphor for childhood’s returns. Few in this collection are
one-bite poems: there’s always something else going on under the surface.
One of the straightest narratives, ‘Desert Rose’ – about a medium trying to
contact a soldier son for a client – is a poem that deals with contemporary
events in so striking a way that it won’t date: it’s reference has been
widened. That’s what I’ve enjoyed about this book: Foley picks her moments
and tries to run with them. Quite some way.
Jane Routh 2004