Review of How To Be A Dressing Gown by Charlotte Oliver

How To Be A Dressing Gown contains an eclectic range of work. Each poem is a gem because Charlotte Oliver has a keen eye for observing the world around her, and the results are both humorous and insightful.

The collection begins with Charlotte locating herself in a world where people are afraid of words (My People),. In this environment, wages and care for others take priority over an artistic soul (Yorkshire Puddings) and the discovery that expressing emotions on paper is a revelation (Her Secret).

…she whispered her deepest feelings 
into the void 
and the peaks and troughs formed outside of her 
and she saw that 
they could be beautiful. 

Family also appear in these early poems. Mum Gets Ready describes untying her housewife self, and hangs her on the back of the kitchen door ready for the morning. The young Charlotte watches as her mother gets ready for a night out, my film star at her dressing table – the red-lined jewellery box dribbles out her pearls. There’s the click of the curling tongs, hiss of hairspray and high heels which puncture the path outside my window as she leaves. The poem is full of visual images, as is Song Of My Granny, who comes to life on the page with her lipsticked giggle and painted nails.

Oh granny, creator of lemon meringue pies, 
who cocked a snook at age – smoked at 9, ears pierced at 70, 
a job at 75 playing music for the ‘poor inmates’ 
in the old folks home. 

Charlotte sees poetry in everyday objects and the title poem, How To Be A Dressing Gown, offers a great example of her talent. Here something recognisable is made special. The role of the dressing gown is that of a hug, and a valuable source of warmth. It has the power of an unexpected sponge pudding with custard. Who wouldn’t rethink their relationship with their dressing gown after reading these lines!

Other day-to-day objects also become poems through Charlotte’s precise observations. It Could Be Anybody’s refers to the odd sock phenomena we’re all familiar with. This one is covered in dust from underneath the bed but when stretched out it reveals a rainbow, chosen because of a love of bright colours. Being Charlotte’s view of a sock, it’s also much more than an item of clothing as it represents the wearer with solid feet that keep us anchored…that cycle to work to save the world.

In Self-Portrait As A Tablecloth, embroidered flowers represent the previous generations who made and owned it, while Shopping List Bird offers a magical world where scraps of paper, receipts, torn notes and sheets lined deep in poems, all turn into birds at night, their countless wings unfolded to and fro as they soared up high towards the setting daytime. 

Part of the appeal of this collection is its blend of styles and subjects. You’re can never be sure what will come next. Not only do the portrait and background poems contain lines of great depth and universal meaning, Charlotte isn’t afraid to leave behind the relative safety of humour. I suspect poems such as Nothing Happens But Everything Happens come from a deeper place. The sudden absence of humour in this poem, first encountered in Her Secret. comes into its own with lines such as these;

Like the silence when you ask if everything’s ok
and the words in their throat crumple up
like a paper straw sucked too hard
and you can’t straighten it out for them

For me, this and the following poem, Appointment, demonstrate Charlotte’s poetic skill on a different level. Appointment describes a hospital visit, and the struggles experienced when White coasted language, sugar-free, muffles my understanding where, after the examination, the narrator returns to the waiting room;

breathless, desperate to escape
the searing light that sees
bones and tissue, but not sadness. 

These are accessible poems, with powerful images, making it a collection I’d recommend to anyone new to poetry as well as for more experienced poets. Charlotte offers her unique view of the world, often with lines which stay with you long after reading. In My Averageness the narrator describes herself as a brown crumb of Christmas pudding in a pile of shiny coins while being no prize specimen…but necessary so others can shine brighter, while the final poem, We Can Just Be imagines leaving behind the day-to-day world where the language of schedules and plans does not exist…leaving only this moment   this moment   this moment. 

Poetry exists in the moment of reading and Charlotte’s poems use words to create worlds which are both personal and universal. Blending the two takes talent and this collection shows great skill in bringing these qualities together in ways which blend humour with deeper insight. The resulting poems capture moments of emotion, suggesting this is a poet to follow. I’m already looking forward to reading Charlotte’s next collection.


How To Be A Dressing Gown is published by Dreich Chapbooks and Charlotte can be found on Twitter as @CharlotteOlivr (without an ‘e’).

Charlotte is an artist as well as a poet. This image of tulips is on the About page of Charlotte’s website. I think it’s beautiful, like Charlotte’s poetry, and for me, the watercolour is another poem waiting to be written!


 

Review of ‘Learning from the Body’ by Sue Butler

The title ‘Learning from the body’ drew me in. I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with my own body, and wondered if this collection by Sue Butler would offer insight or affirmation. After all, women and their bodies have always been problematic… haven’t they?

The text on the back cover describes Sue as a mother, wife and daughter. These were perspectives I could identify with, but Sue is also a doctor, a profession I know little about. Reading the opening poem, The Work of Women, I realised a lack of medical knowledge didn’t matter.

Doctors are half of a relationship and I’ve often been the patient on the other side of the desk or bed. The Work of Women took me back to being stitched after my first experience of childbirth. Here was the pain from a different perspective with a doctor who had learned to sew flesh by making French seams on fabric. I loved the image of the cone of starch white light over her shoulder as Sister did, pushing her wire rim glasses down her nose, and the mother and baby as they begin to learn their separation.  The poem segues between present and past with the absorbing catch on skin of needle, lips, fingers, merging with the memory of nuns and how they prayed together for each other. Reading these lines, I felt confident the collection would contain poems I’d understand, despite knowing little about medicine. The lack didn’t matter because good poetry contains spaces for the reader to fill in and this poem was allowing me to do this.

Sue’s poems are precise and well structured. The clarity of the images invites the reader into a different world such as the title poem Learning from the Body which introduces the experience of autopsy. A basement room is separated from pedestrians on the other side of the frosted glass window, where sunlight slips in and burnishes the skin of his thigh to the rich, smooth texture of polished ebony. All the senses are evoked, especially sound; the clang of scalpel against the metal tray, the seep and reek, the rasp and snap which precede his final release. Practical observations of the colour of skin…state of lungs, heart, weight of liver merge with something more personal as the certainty of death trickles over my forehead, down the creases of my nose. All the while outside the pedestrians pass soundlessly to and fro. This is great visual writing.

We all exist in multiple worlds, but are often unaware of what is happening in the next room or across the street.  Poetry can shine a light on the unknown, making us aware of different experiences, as well as creating resonance. I felt this particularly strongly in the poems which stepped outside the surgery and hospital.

Whale, Walking away and Walking up Quinaig are centred in the natural world, in places of water, dales and mountains. It’s not difficult to think this is where Sue might find an escape from the ever-present sickness and death encountered in her profession, and maybe searches for answers to the inevitable questions we all ask when faced with the loss of a loved one or on encountering disease with family and friends.

Walking away is one of my favourites in the collection. It takes the reader to the Yorkshire Dales where

…an enchantment

falls across the grits
and scars of the dale,
the clints that skin
shins, the grykes that turn
ankles, the wind that whips
chilblains into cheeks.

There are ewes and lambs, lapwings, fossils, and low flying jets, their roar trapped by the wiles of the landscape, alongside a burst of hailstones, hard as pickled conkers. I loved the images of those long gone, the Roman legionnaires and the miners, and how the echo of their lives remains in the landscape

.

Nature is never far away from Sue’s poems.  The Rhododendron is set in a hospital and contrasts the reality of a discussion about an imminent operation with the beauty of flowers with flirting petticoats as they shimmy their ruffles of sugar candy pink, shot with magenta. Ways of looking at a bruise sees it ripe and purple as a plum, sun warm on the palm...flesh soft and wet as unset jelly while the haunting It seemed that some of us were made of nothing describes the shallow water where reeds snagged fragments of coal that crumbled from the seams of the lake. 

The theme of family runs through the poems, calling attention to how every doctor and patient brings other people with them. Whether it’s being forced into the choice between taking a child to its martial arts class or contacting Mrs Briggs about her chest pains in Six o’clock, or the new widow in Last rites whose first automatic action after the death of her husband is to put the kettle on for a cup of tea, these poems remind us how no one exists in isolation.

The relationship between a doctor and patient is confidential but in this collection, their communication is opened up for sharing. The reader is offered insight into a normally private world where illness is the trigger for bringing together people, often strangers, but who have become dependent on each other.

It’s always hard to pick out a favourite poem. I liked Striae, the Latin word used to describe stretchmarks. This is probably because I have the scars and found the idea of life lines to be compassionate, especially the reminder of their association with a new person. It’s too easy to think of striae as cosmetic and forget what they really represent.

this is where all arms first stretch
this is where all feet first kick

I was particularly moved by the final poem Cum Scientia Caritas (knowledge with compassion, the motto of the Royal College of General Practitioners). It’s a short poem but for me, the shifting roles for mother and daughter, sums up all of life, succinctly and with beauty.

Age outruns science.
Healing simply fingerstrokes
in the evening sun.

The beloved daughter
now sponges, clothes, quietly sings.
The caring seasons turn.

Grey plait, white pillow.
Cool lavender draughts.
Life neatly closing.

Sue’s collection showed me how medicine and poetry are more linked than I realised. In the midst of statistical data and clinical precision, doctors need to find and care for the person as much to cure and heal the disease. They deal with life and death, which are the bookends of what it means to be human, while poetry also deals with similar fundamental issues.

This collection takes the reader on a journey, one which deals with facts as much as the poetic imagination.  The Greek Apollo was the god of poetry as well as healing. The connection between them is old and Learning from the body offers evidence of how this ancient relationship remains true to this day.


Learning from the body by Sue Butler is published by Yaffle Press and Sue can be found on Twitter as @drsbutler 


 

Review of ‘A Glimmer o Stars’ by Lynn Valentine

Each of the sixteen poems in A Glimmer o Stars by Lynn Valentine, has been published in Lynn’s Angus Scots as well as English. On my first reading of this lovely new pamphlet, I covered up the English so I could experience the Scots.

There were places where I wasn’t sure of the meaning, but found speaking them out loud offered useful clues, like haun haudin for ‘hand holding’, efternuin for ‘afternoon’, and I sik yir for ‘I seek your’. I’m so glad Hedgehog Poetry Press did this.

Sometimes, text on the page can reveal less than the voice does and I’m now thinking how lovely it would be to listen to these poems while ‘haudin the buik in your haun‘ at the same time!

A Glimmer o Stars contains poems of great tenderness. Set in Scotland with ‘the smell of smoked fish that still makes my veggie mouth water’, and ‘the red of the cliffs bright at any time of year’ (The Language of Home), alongside the ‘small snow of lambs‘ and ‘daffodils drowning in hailstones’ with ‘sly winds starting low then taking over the whole length of sky‘ (A Lost Friend). 

There are poems about family and friends, they speak of love and loss, while being a testament to those no longer with us. The theme of remembrance runs through the book.  There’s the ‘boy in class, the one that could always make us laugh’ who now has their name ‘written on the harbour stone, I mark your passing every time I’m home‘ (A drowning). 

For the mother, the weather map on the tv represented the locations of her family, it ‘tethered and tied us to her coordinates, located her son in the centre of things, held my sisters’ summers in the same spot as hers’ (My Mother’s Complaint).

Meanwhile, the father ‘whistled as if the world was his alone’ before starting up the snowplough for ‘his careful handling of a snoozing town, as he cleared the roads‘ (My Father at 4 a.m.). These are lovely poems of remembrance where, as in so much Lynn’s work, the everyday mingles with the universal, as in Opening.

We are changed, marked by this year –
a furrow of losses ploughed into the soil –
the earth trembles, crows watch,
our hands raw from prayers.

Love and loss are huge themes but Lynn treats them with delicacy, finding meaning in small details and running a thread of subtle humour throughout.

As well as remembrance, these poems speak of ‘involuntary childlessness’ in ways so powerful they seemed to jump off the page. ‘My barren belly concaves in the wet afternoon, my waterproof the only second skin I’ll own‘ (Sheela Na Gig, Rodel). Visiting a rag well with ‘nervous giggles‘ speaks of places where hope and prayers are manifest in gifts to the earth. ‘We knotted our wishes round the well…white for a child, blue for a cure.’

The reader wants there to be a happy ending but the truth is more painful. ‘You away by midsummer, me and my belly empty‘ (Clootie Well).

Poetry has a way of giving voice to unspeakable things so they can be shared. Reading Lynn’s poems is like opening locked doors, and finding you’re not alone after all. This can be a great comfort, in particular when it comes to difficult subjects.

The title of the pamphlet comes from the poem Snow Blind, one of my favourites. The opening lines pull you in and carry you on to its sad, but beautiful, ending.

She can sense the emptying of the sky
though her sight’s nearly gone, her eyes
a glimmer o stars. This cold snap
came on quick and now everyone flies.
She can’t hear the housemartins
anymore, their small cheeps
above the fields. She listens to the geese
going north, their song of for snow, for snow.
By winter, if she’s spared, she’ll be
snow-blind, neither use more ornament
to anyone. She’ll choose a course,
~go travelling for snow or sun.

There’s so much to like and love in A Glimmer o Stars. Lynn’s poems are full of stunning images like the sparrows with cold children, where the poet saves loose dog hair, ‘pushing it into trees to warm their nests‘ (A lost friend).

The line ‘hope was measured in small things’ returns to the theme of memories, and how small objects can carry so much meaning. The line describing a street in Prague, filled with bundles of wool and shelves of tins, put me in mind of a collection of poems like this pamphlet, where each blank page is an opportunity for the poet to ‘…weave, shuttle and loom, knot gaps for other peoples dreams’ (Lacuna).

The image of weaving reminded me of ‘rhapsode‘, from where we get ‘rhapsody’. In Ancient Greece, the name was used for the performer of epic poetry such as Homer, and can be translated as ‘sewing songs together’.  Lynn takes the imagery of the loom one step further, by knotting gaps for other people’s dreams. I interpreted this as ‘resonance’.

We turn to poetry for different reasons; comfort, pleasure, recommendation, or simple curiosity. Sometimes, when a line resonates, it becomes part of the attraction. I liked ‘hands raw from prayers‘ (Opening). The words not only reinforce the passage of time, but speak of longing and desire, as evidenced in Pickers, where the womb of the earth quickens, birthing potatoes as children.

Pickers also offers examples of Lynn’s lovely, gentle rhymes, so subtle they risk being missed, especially when reading to yourself. I’d suggest reading them aloud to fully realise their cleverness and subtlety. These rhymes are as much about the sound a word leaves behind, or the shape of it in your mouth and on your tongue. It’s the best type of rhyming, as in ‘field and leave’, ‘work and earth’, and the repetition of ‘ing’ in the final stanza.

Readers are shown the power of language in these poems, not only to communicate but to physically mirror who we are. Language can both unite and separate, but I prefer to think of it as linking people together and Lynn is gifted at this.

It’s also clear that Lynn treasures language. The opening poem The Language of Home (after Roger Robinson), sets the tone of the pamphlet with its closing words I will take this gift and pass it on, write my words, sing my songs.

The closing poem All sunflowers turn, is another of my favourites. It describes Lynn packing the weather into a bag, with the intention of emptying it onto her mother’s bed, a gentle repetition of the weather theme introduced in My Mother’s Complaint.

Memory is fixed in the setting sun, which is always different, always beautiful. It represents the time of day when we’re reminded of the breadth and depth of a world bigger and greater than we are, and provides a beautiful image to end the pamphlet.

I will open your eyes to the reddening sky, 
turn your head westwards, stay for always.

What are poems after all, if not attempts to pin life onto the page for sharing, to be read in quiet places, or as windows to be looked through by strangers.

The best poems are like rags tied to the trees at Clootie Well, made and left behind for others.

Lynn’s poems are physical evidence of presence in a world of multiple voices. If you want to write poetry, but don’t know where to start, I’d suggest reading A Glimmer o Stars. The poems offer ways into poetry which are accessible and have meaning, while also demonstrating how the heart of a poem often lies in its unexpected twists and reminders of universal experience, something Lynn does so well. I loved these poems and am looking forward to reading more when Life’s Stink and Honey, Lynn’s first full collection, is published by Cinnamon Press in 2022.

A Glimmer o Stars is published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press. The print version has sold out at Hedgehog, but the e-book is still available. Alternatively, a print version can be ordered via Lynn’s website lynnvalentine.com where you can read more about Lynn and her poetry. Finding a Voice Lynn Valentine is another page worth visiting, and lastly, to see and hear Lynn herself, watch The Aunties, a poem not from this collection but one which includes the line Life’s Stink and Honey, to be published next year by Cinnamon Press.

Review of ‘When I think of my body as a horse’ by Wendy Pratt

Motherhood is a universal club women take for granted, until they find their entrance is barred. The poems in When I think of my Body as a Horse by Wendy Pratt are about the struggle to gain membership to this club. They are beautifully written poems, but not easy to read because they deal with the death of Wendy and her husband Chris’s daughter, Matilda. The collection is a testimony, not only of Matilda’s life but also the siblings who were conceived, then lost.

The book follows the journey Wendy and Chris made as they tried to start a family.  Like so many others, they had no idea what the future held. This is poignantly shown in the intimate Sleep (for Chris), which contains a terrible prescience in its final lines. A single star in the sky

can stare straight in at our nudity
our utter innocence.

With no indication of what lies ahead, we are innocent of future delights and tragedies. Instead we live from day to day and in The Language of Pre-Motherhood, Wendy is unable to find the moment of change when the decision was made to become parents.

I don’t remember a discussion,
but there must have been one

there must have been a catalyst
the thinnest slice of the thinnest razor
splitting the moment

when we went from being two
to the imaginary three

Membership of the Motherhood Club guarantees common ground, one which offers affinity with strangers and provides topics of conversation which can be relied on. You gain automatic entry with the birth of your first child, while the months prior to birth are like standing in front of its open doors. looking inside. This is the time when baby shopping is validated, and you’re exposed to the vast range of products you had no idea existed. You think of your own mother and grandmother, and how it’s your turn to perpetuate the archetype of motherhood. Wendy describes this in the language of sainthood.

And I waited meekly for my turn 
as one by one the others were beatified 
rising up: a rapture of motherhood…

… Until there was no one left 
who spoke my language.

The language was infertility. Diagnosis tells the reader there are problems on both sides, with just two lines representing 60 individual months of hope and subsequent loss.

The five years we’ve been trying
to conceive: a waste of time.

I’m not entirely sure where Matilda first appears. It might be the thirteenth poem titled Embryo Transfer, where Wendy and Chris have to wait 14 days to know if an embryo has embedded.

                   In exactly fourteen days, 
the morning will arrive and you may 
be carted away; a mote of a dream 
on the razor edge slant of the morning’s light.
Until then let me keep you with me,
held fast with blood and imagination,
longing and love.

Two poems later, there is the wonderfully titled Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, dedicated to the memory of M. If this is Matilda, these are the poems where she exists. Nesting is about shopping for ‘tiny baby bits’ and putting the Moses basket together.  My Favourite Memory describes feeling like a Russian doll with infinite babies inside, and the sensation of being kicked ‘down into my cervix, pushing up under my ribs’. The poems fill the reader with hope until Tachycardia tells us something has gone wrong. The title is the medical term for a heart rate over 100 beats per minute and this appears to be the point where the baby dies.

The aftermath is Air, a poem which refers to a funeral, white coffin, the tiny grave and contains the heartbreaking cry ‘Houdini Girl, how did you disappear?  Air is followed by The Circle of Sisters where Wendy describes the shift from expectant mother to becoming the woman who was different.

I became an embarrassment. I was no longer 
a sister of the circle, but my body 
couldn’t forget their dance, so I danced
in the shadow of my sisters, and shouted
my daughter’s story through the gaps. 

The drive to become a mother is primaeval. Women are biologically, socially and culturally guided towards parenthood from their earliest moments. Every month contains the possibility of pregnancy, too often followed by loss. In Warning, the reader is reminded how the painful process manifests itself. Like the single reference to five years of trying to conceive in Diagnosis, this poem ends with the painfully brief sharing of two further bereavements.

All the time I am warning others, 
My body has become a broken machine
sparking life then promptly distinguishing it. 

I warn myself not to get too happy, 
not to get too comfortable, or too complacent
with the tiny heartbeats in my womb. But I do, 
and death comes, twice more.

The theme of hares runs throughout the collection. They include the wonderful When Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, Hare Enters the Bedroom, and The Hare Refuses to Speak. Hares are associated with rebirth, the coming of spring and new beginnings. In Hare we’re told,

My husband buys me hare-themed
gifts; we have hare cushions
and hare notebooks.

Hares are also icons for fertility and a symbol of hope, but in this collection, it’s the pattern of loss which continues. Sixth Birthday shows Matilda’s memory living on as Wendy imagines a day spent with Chris and their daughter at the seaside.

In Seven, Wendy visits Matilda’s grave and in Packing the Maternity Clothes Away, another step on the journey of acceptance is painfully taken.

How limp they all look 
how dispossessed, how empty.

It’s like I dropped them here,
when I heard she was leaving,
and returned seven years later. 

Eight revisits some of the time Wendy and Chris spent with Matilda.

I held you like a doll. 
I should have touched 
those still-wet curls, 
sucked those little fingers
kissed your foot soles 
while you were warm.

In Nine, the annual ritual is played out again, with this poem containing what, for me, is one of the saddest lines in the collection.

The pause where we 
wait to hear your first breath
has lasted nine years.

After a bereavement, common phrases are used by family, friends and strangers, such as time heals, you’ll get over it, you can always try again and so on. The truth is, time doesn’t heal and you don’t get over it. All you can do is learn to live with loss and it’s within the process of living where something eventually shifts. This is beautifully shown in Nine Years of Mourning.

There is a snap of umbilicus.
We slide apart. I step away.

Today I climb out of my skin;
my mourning dress. I am nude and white
as a stripped willow branch. I leave the dress behind,
stiff with the sweat of surviving.

The following title poem, When I Think of my Body as a Horse, speaks more about this acceptance.

I do not blame it for lost babies, 
it did its best. I do not blame 
myself for lost babies. I did my best.

I ride my body in a slow companionship.
Comforting it at the end of the day
and I say, Body, you are beautiful, 
you are beautiful, 

There is no language adequate to describe the loss of a child or children, and no social vocabulary for childlessness by circumstance rather than choice. Becoming a family is taken for granted and most couples are not taught how to live fulfilling lives on their own, or given advice for dealing with years of failed attempts to conceive.

In these 50 poems, Wendy has started the essential process of finding ways to speak about losing your babies. In doing so, she has created a collection which will resonate with anyone who has been through a similar situation, or knows somebody who has.

The book ends with hope of a different kind. At the end of the day, two people chose to make a life together, neither of them knowing what lay ahead. Eventually, the time arrives to draw a line under the failed attempts for a viable pregnancy. The decision is made to abandon the fertility clinics and rounds of IVF. The couple accept they are two, and not three or more. The people who met and fell in love continue to exist, and it’s recognising and cherishing this partnership that matters most of all.


When I Think of My Body as a Horse, by Wendy Pratt, is the winner of the 2020 International Book & Pamphlet Competition judged by Imtiaz Dharker & Ian McMillan. The book can be purchased from the Poetry Society website here

When I Think of My Body as a Horse is Wendy’s third full collection. The first collection, Museum Pieces, was published by Prolebooks and the second Gifts the Mole Gave Me was published by Valley Press.

Wendy’s website, Wendy Pratt Writing, contains further details of publications and poetry courses.


 

 

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