Days of Fire and Flood: Poems 1985-2003, Chrissy Banks
[£8.95, Original Plus,]
There are two prefaces to choose from at the start of this collection; one from a male poet, one from a female poet, worlds apart in terms of taste, ideas, what they look for in a poem. I suppose this is intended to show that Chris(sy) Banks, who has apparently elongated her name to avoid being thought male, is a poet whose work can appeal to any gender, which is a Good Thing. Saying that, she does have an inordinate amount of poems which address men, from a female point of view. Which is fine, as she is a woman, and allowed.
So, by being Chrissy Banks, rather than Chris, she is declaring herself partisan, and it is clear from the second poem in the book, 'He Belongs To Me', that this feminine standpoint is psychologically and politically aware. The disillusionment with a 'Jackie magazine' world is not pointing a finger at men, (or boys, in this instance) but at what young girls were/are sold, regarding their expectations. Bob Dylan becomes the hero of the poem, and the song titles included indicate a girl's growing consciousness, and intimations of a much deeper, broader, politicised experience. It's also quite sad. I mean recognisable. The poem finishes with
By year's end, I suspected only Dylan knew
the woman I could be and how to love her.
I think Chrissy Banks' strengths lie in her psychological nous. The language is not shy, and yet the treatment of individual motive and the depth of understanding is very careful; delicate even. 'Stressed' is one of the strongest poems in the collection, for those very reasons. Here's a family of four, (family at war); mother on the verge of leaving, father blocking everything out, with a history only hinted at:
Some days he wonders who he is. Some days
he knows. He's not sure which is worse.
and a son, lacking a relevant role model, and unable to understand what freedom is for, collapsing in on himself:
He sleeps all morning, rents some videos
to see him through the afternoon.
He lights a spliff, imagines her spreadeagled
on the kitchen table, wanks.
He loathes the English way of telling lies -
switchblade secreted in velvet sheaths
of etiquette. Home: what is it anyway?
Four people living out an obsolete regime.
The possibility of hope rests with the youngest; a girl still angry enough to make a difference to her future. But this is undercut by the limits of her imagining for herself:
she's going to go where she is needed,
help someone. Money's all they care about.
A noble aspiration is tainted by the reasons for choosing to 'help someone', and by hardening herself to the world, thereby making herself smaller, the daughter represents the loss of possibility. The sadness of this is brought home when considering youth; the future here is not a free gift the young ought to possess, but something they have to give up. This theme is echoed in 'Tough', where the lack of needs being met result in another young girl hardening/giving up.
'Living the Ordinary' is really a prelude to the above poem. It's not my favourite, but it acts as an introduction to the wealth of themes in this collection; lies and secrets, etiquette as a straight-jacket, the threat of or resultant psychological harm:
Down in the cellar something lives
and grows ... It will surface soon.
The above, plus 'The Fire Eaters' and 'The Silence', examine the idea of family from all angles, always taking into account the 'whys', which I think saves the poems from being plain narratives with no depth. 'Stressed' does much more than the average 'life is crap' poem, because it centres upon the failings of the individuals concerned, and we can empathise with the dilemmas involved, even in the face of there being no apparent resolution.
Chrissy Banks displays huge compassion for women at all stages of their lives, and poses many (yes, still, today,) uncomfortable questions; the problem of female identity and what it might be, set against a range of options, which I have to say, never stray outside the more obvious; wives, mothers, lovers etc. This could, in the weird light of post-feminism, if that's what it is these days, be considered a failing. (It might have been good to include a poem about a woman pilot, or explorer?) But there is a truth in the options Banks points out; women do still live with men who beat them up ('Bruised Fruit') and still miss the opportunity to learn a different way of being, like 'The Woman Who Loved Too Much' going round in a self-destructive circle. As I said, she's very good at the psychological stuff. And I suppose that means it's political too.
Language-wise there is sometimes too much of a leaning toward C.A. Duffy in style and tone, but poems like 'Waver' are really meaty and delightful, where the sea is 'All sloom and somnolence', for example. I don't think I've ever seen the word 'sloom' before, and I like it immensely.
In 'The Silence' the poem turns ( I mean, as a sonnet 'turns') to a very lyric depiction of the mother/daughter relationship, and this change of pace and tone was a surprise, which being so unexpected, I found quite beautiful:
Mother I saw the moon last night
repeat itself upon a lake ....
So one moon watched the other
break into a hundred drowning flakes
and one moon watched the other,
solitary, out of reach...
My only real quibble with this collection is the title. It's just too grand for the content.
I can see why it was called this, (Fire = flesh, desire, love, and Flood = er, lots of rain?), but it seems a little gauche. Even so, I believe that this collection is a reminder of where women have been, and where they often still are. It's White Western Woman in viewpoint, with a token poem reflecting another culture, ('Emigrant Child'), but that's honest rather than remiss, and it doesn't mean the concerns reflected have gone away. They haven't.
© Sandra Tappenden 2005