Review of Precious Mettle by Sarah Wallis

There’s much to like in Precious Mettle by Sarah Wallis. For starters, the title is an interesting play on words, one which reflects many of the themes to be discovered in this book. These are poems about survival in a world which is constantly changing yet also repetitive. Different generations can find themselves facing similar circumstances through relationships and events which may be rewarding or challenging, sometimes both. The core meaning of mettle is resilience or the ability to survive no matter what life throws our way. We need this, just as we need the natural world around us and all of its surprises, often hidden beneath our feet. There are so wonderful images of survival in this book.

The Persephone Room shows a beautiful vision of Hades with …stucco walls in plain washed pink, where silhouetted trees are dotted precious / with bright, gold, pomegranates / spaced in time like planets… Here, beauty is darkened with a hollow promise and a candlelit supper …ever a trick / to catch a girl on a darkling promise. In a perfect example of how less can be more, the relationship between Persephone and her mother Demeter is left until the final lines;

And somewhere over and above the adventuring,

the keen of a mother’s six-month spaced grief.

The Midas Girl reinterprets the legend of king Midas, cursed to turn everything he touched into gold, with a contemporary account of the narrator being injected with gold, a treatment once used for inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. The poem begins with one of Sarah’s wonderful first lines; I am more precious now, stock rising with each injection as I take on more treasure, a pirate’s gleam.  The scientist is turning her …into an ingot / and with rude delight compare / soaring notes as traders might… If I were to be weighed / and sold I would amount to more / than the sum of myself.

The wonderful Origin Story is a clever re-positioning of the tale of Iris, ancient Greek messenger of the gods, who has been captured by early man. As Iris struggles to escape, she tears her rainbow skirts and releases their colours in a beautiful re-imagining of the creation of rainbows.

…but the man told the other men
of the mountains and they drew down
the rainbow with a spell, held to her skirts
and fixed her into the earth forever

…so the singing continued
of the seven colours sown into the mountain…

By definition, myth contains unprovable mysteries. They offer us narrative stories without evidence and Sarah makes wonderful use of the spaces contained within them, gaps where a poet’s imagination can soar. There are poems about the four excavated golden bronze age hats, and the Nebra sky disc, made of bronze, gold and copper; artefacts about which far more is unknown than known. Subjects like these, where exact origins and meanings remain a mystery, are ideal subjects for poetry, and Sarah is adept at re-examining them through fresh contemporary eyes.

My favourite poems include How the Pearl Became with its tripartite structure, each section taking an alternative approach to the creation and cultural significance of pearls, and The World Stands Still to Weep with its wonderful opening line; Zero point zero zero two five grams – is the weight or a tear. It’s a line to remember, as are so many in this poem including how each tear is clear and perfectly formed as snowflakes make lone / journeys of sorrow…

Sarah writes amazing first lines.  I remember a workshop which examined the importance of opening lines as tools of attraction and there are many wonderful examples in this collection.  I particularly liked My father kept shares in a Columbian goldmine (aurum meum) / but wouldn’t allow me to keep a goldfish (carassius auratus) from Latin for Goldfish and The girl speaks with fluency and easy / breath on the stage in Liquidity. In each case, I was immediately drawn into what followed.

Latin for Goldfish by Samira Mian

For me, there were two outstanding poems. A Box of Opal Fish with its jeweller’s workshop in Shanghai which reeks of green tea and pink roses, incongruous / and well past blown, clinging on, a death scent hangs about their skirts…How could anyone not want to know what follows this! Also, My mother is an Aviary stayed with me long after I first read it. In this poem, a mother is reimagined as birds merged with more personal memories, and concludes;

My mother is an aviary
all lapis lazuli
all kingfisher blue

the feline and the feathered
find an all-weather arc. And she is my mother,
an ear on the phone and a beacon in the dark.

This poem left me thinking how all mothers can be described as aviaries, with their characters and personalities likened to a variety of different birds. For me, this poem is both original and thought-provoking, offering an excellent insight into Sarah’s poetic eye and intuition.

Precious Mettle contains poems about the survival of myth, objects, and humans coping with difficulty. Every time I turned a page, I was wondering what I’d find next and was never disappointed. We all need individual mettle. The stamina to survive is indeed a precious gift, and these poems remind you of shared life experiences or, more importantly, different ways of seeing. Sometimes, when life gets hard, all we need to do is change our viewpoint, or be reassured we are not alone, and Sarah’s poetry achieves both of these in many remarkable ways.

Precious Mettle is published by Alien Buddha Press. It follows a long line of publications including How to Love the Hat Thrower and Medusa Retold. Each is worth exploring but, if you are new to Sarah’s work, Precious Mettle offers an ideal place to start.

Sarah Wallis is a poet and playwright, based in Scotland, UK, since moving from Yorkshire in 2019. Theatrical residencies include Leeds Playhouse and Harrogate Theatre, as well as work for Leeds Fringe. Sarah’s blog can be found here and Sarah tweets as @wordweave

Never Wear White by Susan Darlington

image showing the front cover of the poetry collection Never Where White

Poetry is a great medium for opening up personal experiences. In Never Wear White Susan Darlington writes with rare honesty about the transitions of a woman’s life, sharing them with great skill and elegance. Many poems in this collection will resonate. Readers may recall their first period, attempts to conceive, or challenging relationships with mother figures. This is what good poetry does so well. Susan makes the collection personal while also touching on the universal, leaving space for readers to insert their own identities. It’s an achievement that demonstrates great accomplishment.

The origin of individual poems and their details often remain secret but for me, this collection had an autobiographical feel. Transition is a key theme. The book moves through childhood to adolescence, arriving at adulthood with all the pain of lost hope and relationships, then finally reaching acceptance. I loved the structuring of this passage through time.

black and white image showing a baby's hand curled around an adult sized finger

The first four poems (A Mother’s Love, The Storm’s Prophecy, Raw Material and The Encounter) are set in childhood. The images are raw and visceral, for example, this birth description in A Mother’s Love.

When mother was scooped out
I pounded with my reddened fists
against her limpid emptiness,
screamed out for more! more
and was starved from her womb.

In Raw Material a child is constructed through a series of images. These include a pair of fabric legs that are crudely stitched / with lengths of blood specked thread… dimpled and battle-scarred plastic arms… and a railway track spine attached with a chain of safety pins. Strong visual images like these can be found throughout the collection.

The first life transition is described in Visits From my Future Self where the narrator meets someone who borrowed her voice and stole her possessions, before gifting a razer blade with instructions on how to play her game: / to draw lines down our arms until white was red. This line gave me the shivers!

image sowing a red liquid spiralling in a glass of water

Carrie moves the collection to early experiences of menstruation. The poem begins with the shame of a woman’s body / through my mother’s handwritten notes written to excuse me from showers and swimming.  The lines took me back to a time when the possession and passing across of notes like these felt like the equivalent of shouting from the rooftops that you had your period. Susan shares the universal fear that everyone can smell the iron of my blood and see the stain seeping into my skirt’s fabric and dribbling down the inside of my thigh. Experiences like these are frighteningly common, with the worries made worse when they occur during adolescence, a time when many girls can feel ill-prepared to cope with difference.

The subject of menstruation has been framed by social constructions, old as time, and further reinforced through cultural and religious conceptions of menstrual blood as the source of fear and uncleanliness. The final line of Carrie aptly sums up this confusion as young girls learn to …absorb a shame we don’t understand.

image showing a sad face drawn on red card and held up infront of a seater person, obscuring their face.

The collection also deals with infertility. Society has still not learned how to approach childlessness in ways which are warm and supportive.  It’s Alright addresses miscarriage; Blue Line is the struggle to conceive and Not Quite shares the shock diagnosis of early menopause. There’s still a social expectation that women will have children at some point in their lives. When this is not possible, for whatever reason, other people can struggle to deal with the reality of the situation, leading to tensions between individual experience and wider expectations. Susan’s poems capture the conflict in ways which are raw and visceral, at times drawing on wider folklore and fairytale to emphasise the difficulties.

The Encounter has the stunning opening line The whale swallowed my mother / when she was just a child.  In this poem, the mother adorned her clothes / with tiny, silver air bubbles / that burst under my cheek / when she held me close and sang the siren’s call in the bath before cleaning the seaweed tidemark from the tub. The Unkindness tells of a mother cutting off the child’s plaits and attaching them to her own head …with pins / that made her scalp bleed before she runs off into the darkening thicket without a backwards glance

image whosing a dark forest in the light of a setting sun

The supernatural contrasts with realist observation of day-to-day life in Sensible Shoes and Ammonia Afternoons but even here, there’s a sense of something sinister, alongside a difficult relationship with a mother, who might have secretly hoped for a daughter to share her own life with. The poem concludes with something many daughters will recognise:

Because I am not that daughter.
And sometimes I can’t help but think
that I’m a disappointment to you.

The final poem The Art of Childlessness deals with coming to terms with what a diagnosis of early menopause can mean and ways to deal with it.

It’s not about being child-less…

…It’s not about being less of anything.
It’s about being child-free.

Free to spend time dancing….

Finding your own rhythms….

Knowing that no matter what,
alone, you are complete.

Being female can be messy on multiple levels. Susan’s fearless poems break down the walls of secrecy surrounding not only menstruation and miscarriage, but also the difficult heartbreak of infertility. The intriguing use of folklore contributes towards making this a unique and compelling collection, one which will take the reader back through memories of their own encounters with similar issues and will stay around in the days and weeks afterwards.  The realism of female biology remains a largely taboo subject. Powerful poetry collections, such as Never Wear White are much needed to shine a light in the dark corners of such universal experiences.

Susan Darlington can be found on Twitter at

Never Wear White is published by Alien Buddha Press

head and shoulders image of Susan Darlington