Red Squirrel Press, 2010 £4.00
Reviewed by Charlotte Gann, Fiona Sinclair and Ross Kightly
Finding IKEA is a refreshing collection in a way: here is someone willing to come out and say what she thinks, or fears. And I definitely come away with a clear sense of the consciousness operating on the other side of the page. On the other hand, some of the violence in these poems feels gratuitous—such a fine line to tread—and some clichéd endings don’t help convince me I’m in safe hands.
My two favourite poems are the disarmingly simple ‘Returning my Daughter to College’, and the wonderfully observed ‘Diocesan Regulation for Churchyards’. In the first, the image of driving home “bearing the weight of empty luggage” is beautifully held by the bleak landscape itself, capturing in a felt way “the full darkness of parting”:
No hedges, trees or broken white lines,
a frayed ribbon of tarmac with sudden dips and forgotten
bends. Eyes of hefted sheep
flicker from the dark clouds of heather.
Here, for me, the writing is at its most effective: showing not telling, with distinct, simple rhythmic language. The ‘Diocesan Regulation’ also draws strength from being under- rather than over-stated. Humour and melancholy culminate satisfyingly in the poem’s final line: “Small posies may be placed on the stone tablet . . . / but nothing permanent.”
Less convincing, for me, are poems like ‘What do they expect?’ and the title poem ‘Finding IKEA’ itself. Although a palpable sense of rage and distrust pervades the pamphlet, odd instances where it’s dragged kicking into the open can feel unsubtle, even immature, in some way.
The title poem is characteristic—apparently about one thing, mundane and everyday, but in fact picking up on the violence, or possibility for violence, especially between men and women, that seems to lurk just a “filthy windscreen” away. And yet, in ‘What do they expect?’, it simply shocks me when I read, seemingly out of nowhere:
And somehow I knew the man who drove me to my wedding
was someone not to be alone with—yet I did not know
after tendering a ride, he’d raped, killed and buried a girl.
This is clearly toxic stuff—and it may be that I’m missing a cultural context? (The cover image seems to be African, yet the poems I read as set firmly in the UK.) I’m left confused. I feel I need to understand better where and why she’s coming from before I’m open to respond to such strong material.
The same likeable persona seems to speak throughout the poems in Hazel Buchan Cameron’s pamphlet Finding IKEA. This narrator’s charm lies in a willingness to discuss personal matters without self-pity. Some pieces take a fresh view on familiar life events; others deal with more unusual subjects.
A mother-and-daughter relationship is examined more than once. The poet does well to emphasise the mother’s fears of losing the child to the adult world. In ‘Returning my Daughter to College’ the very word ‘‘returning’’ suggests she has borrowed or taken her daughter temporarily away from her proper place. The title poem, ‘Finding IKEA’, has the mother experience an almost animalistic need to protect her daughter from two men who mouth ‘‘sexual innuendos to [her] child/ through their filthy windscreen.’’
Although she is generally positive in outlook, Cameron does introduce darker elements. I found ‘Old Neighbour’ particularly effective at revealing how the horrors of an individual’s past can persist. The opening lines capture the character’s fear of exposure:
How dare you from my childhood history appear
on the new street of my life . . .
The poet chooses to hint subtly at past experiences, leaving the reader to imagine the rest ‘‘of times amongst grey-harled houses/ with not-supposed-to fears’’. I found the most arresting part was the revelation that while such horrors may scar the victim’s life, other bit players in their past, such as this ‘Old Neighbour’, remain untouched.
Some poems deal with the persona’s inner landscape. Here, private thoughts not usually made public are examined. To avoid sentimentality the poet skilfully conceals her meaning behind metaphors. Thus the ‘Stalker’ represents the narrator’s complicity in perpetuating a lack of confidence created by other people’s constant criticism, and ‘Own Goal’ symbolises her habit of sabotaging her own life before others do.
Cameron has a gift for composing arresting first lines (‘‘I have a stalker watching over me’’ in ‘Stalker’). Rhyme is used judiciously to emphasise a point. The language is spare. When imagery is deployed, it is arresting. ‘New Recruit’ contains memorable examples, especially the simile ‘‘Like prayer beads carefully counted, I search every hidden face’’ which describes the narrator scanning ranks of soldiers during the trooping of the colour for a glimpse of a young soldier she briefly met on a train.
The poem ‘Returning my Daughter to College’ is a master class in ‘show don’t tell’ as external features reveal the mother’s emotional state: ‘‘I drive home bearing the weight of empty luggage’’, ‘‘ a stray cat’s eye winks’’, ‘‘Pagliacci’s intermezzo weeps from the radio.’’
I particularly enjoyed the way humour is used to ameliorate sombre events. The opening lines of ‘Finding IKEA’ (‘‘We drive like tail enders on a party conga/ in search of the Mecca of home furniture’’ made me laugh out loud.
The ‘feel’ of this pamphlet is excellent, but I confess to having been misled by the rather lovely cover photograph of a young black person in what appears to be an African setting turning toward the camera, while holding with tentative pride a home-made wooden bicycle. I thought the cover promised something a bit Third-World-ish or Oxfam-ish, which the pamphlet isn't.
These are, in fact, very approachable poems; the poet’s voice is clear in all of them and she is talking sense. Sometimes it is passionate sense, as in ‘Returning my Daughter to College’ and sometimes compassionate, as in the last line of ‘New Recruit’ on the facing page. This is a poem of long, carefully-paced lines narrating a chance encounter with a “young girl” who asks to borrow a mobile phone and reveals later she is on her way “to see the world” in her “soldier’s uniform; red lipstick/ expunged”. In that final line, the poet watches the Trooping of the Colour and
Like prayer beads carefully counted, I search every hidden face.
Sometimes the sense is very angry indeed. In ‘In the Best Place’, eight-year-old Sophie Waller, who starved to death after having her teeth extracted, is the subject of a furious elegy, tinged in its conclusion with understated, though savage, irony:
The doctor says a watermelon is enough—to live on,
Hold faith, do not make a fuss.
At othertimes the mood mutates within the poem to disturbing and thought-provoking effect. In the title poem, for example, the serio-comic ordeal of dismantling a bargain counter wardrobe with “screwdriver and allen key—given free” is followed by an incident at the traffic lights on the way home where “two men mouth sexual innuendos” to the poet’s young daughter “through their filthy windscreen”, provoking the poet’s reaction in which, after stripping them bare, she wants to “hang, draw and quarter each with care”. Hands up if— honestly—you can say you don’t agree with this reaction—especially after an encounter with Ikea flatpacking in reverse.
A final point is that these poems are also filled with tactile and sensuous imagery: “the heat of the raspberry sun” in ‘Berry Picking’ and damp, “landscaped walls as though drawn by Seurat/ in graphite black” in ‘Perishing’.