Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Entomology, Helen Clare

HappenStance Press, 2014 

Lines that pack a punch

On page 2 of Entomology there’s a poem I’ll never forget. ‘Assassin Bug’ amused and saddened me in equal measure. You might think it was about programmes on forensics, or killers. But then it would just be about TV. In fact, it’s much more.

This is how the poem ends:

                        [ ... ] no-one knows

why an assassin bug, after creeping
across a web stretching, snipping, bouncing up

a screen of vibrations, then mimicking
a trapped fly, gives its prey a gentle tap.

Or why when, before our marriage, he said
he was selfish I thought he exaggerated.

Spouses have been known to discover their partners are selfish after they’ve married them — but this ending is dynamic. How refreshing to hear someone recognising and admitting selfishness! How upsetting that (despite his warning) she underestimated the extent!

‘Bluebottle’ (page 12) is another bitter-sweet example of the poet’s ability to surprise. She includes lines that sweep me away:

My mother once told me they had my brother
because she found me in the conservatory
talking to bluebottles.

How many of us can identify with talking to insects, animals, imaginary friends? It’s a great image — even if not all our parents provided us with siblings as a result.

Helen Clare writes with careful craft. This pamphlet is a joy to read.

Sheila Wakefield

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Surely there can’t be many of us who are unfamiliar with Eric Carle’s masterpiece of simplicity The Very Hungry Caterpillar. And look! Here he is again, our hero, albeit updated with attendant complications, maybe even metamorphosed into a different gender.

Cleverly, he/she has insinuated him/herself into the very heart of the eighteen other sonnets in Helen Clare’s pamphlet Entomology. How I love a good joke, and this is a good joke: Larvus megafamishus cocooned among such seriously adult insects as Stenolemus bituberusBlattella germanicaFilodes mirificalis. Which is not to say the famished larva lacks weight, nor indeed that its fellows are without a degree of lightness.

This ‘velveteen’ People’s Princess, vulnerability intact − ‘too delicious / to be inedible, too bright to be unseen’ — is carried along by basic rhythm and solid rhyme like antidotes to the ‘wheatgrass’ and ‘goji berries’ of today’s celebrity culture with its fixation on little else but style:

I’m something of a role model

so must sustain my image and the measure-
ments befitting a national treasure.

Helen Clare’s ‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’ is firmly on message, with cameos from Martin Bashir, Twitter, the ubiquitous Five-a-Day, and more. Thank goodness, though, the fun is untainted by reference to any rumoured enthusiasm for Colonic Irrigation.

Jo Field

On not feeling averse

How anyone could think about maggots without shivering, I do not know. However, Helen Clare manages to do just that. I read her poems about bugs, moths, caterpillars, bluebottles and many other creepy-crawlies (no spiders though) and did not feel sick. My skin did not crawl. I read about things I’m strongly averse to without feeling … averse.

Entomology is a set of sonnets recounting memories or images involving insects. But usually insects are not the focal point. Perhaps keeping them on the periphery is what allows the poet to leave out the toe-curling details.

Calliphora vomitoria: Bluebottle’ is my favourite, although a bluebottle is one of the most annoying insects. When I think of ‘Bluebottle’, I think dirty, I think disgusting, I think big, and I think annoying. The Latin name sounds apt!

But the poet says

My mother once told me they had my brother
because she found me in the conservatory
talking to bluebottles.

There’s no conjuring my usual bluebottle connotations when handed this image of innocence. The associations are many, but for me, none of them are of bluebottles. They’re of family and small, lonely girls in their own little worlds.

It fascinates me that Helen Clare has used creatures which usually conjure fear and revulsion to portray none of these emotions. Perhaps she has different insect associations from me. Maybe she even likes them. I do, however, enjoy that she writes about them without too many gory details. She never makes me grimace.

After reading I’m left wary. I feel as if I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security where insects are not ... monsters.

Poppy Jarratt

A conversation about insects

Entomology! Practise saying that word a few times out loud. Then read through Helen Clare’s nineteen sonnets dedicated to the creepy, crawly creatures of the insect kingdom.

It feels as if you’re entering a truly mysterious world. Your eye strains to see beyond the wings, the range of colour or fine lines, the unique movement. Then you discover a surprising link to your own mood, quietly dressed in the anatomy of a bug.

Helen Clare does this with brilliance. The sonnet structure lends her pattern and form as she studies the anatomy of her relationships through insects.

The striking thing is the conversational style and the way it creates intimacy. ‘Emperor Dragonfly’, for example, opens:

Have you seen the monster on the window sill?  

There’s an equally fascinating idea in ‘Assassin Bug’when she writes:

My favourites are those killers who look
a victim in the eye, tell them what they’ll do.

It almost felt like taking a walk with the poet while she chatted casually about things that were in no way casual. She revealed bits and pieces of her life with honesty, as one might in the company of strangers. More than once I felt a kind of kinship, especially when I read lines like, ‘[ ... ] she picked her way through / the chaos of my kitchen and made me soup’ (in ‘Seven Spot Ladybird’). Or in ‘Tear Drinking Moth’, where she sends ‘a fleet of butterflies’ to

         [ ... ] disperse and dance
your hurt before your shining eyes.

The non-entomologist may take a few minutes to settle in but the telling is so spontaneous you are drawn in without a struggle. Happy reading!

Shalini Pattabiraman

Seeing things differently

As I read Entomology in the unusual August heat, a riot of painted lady butterflies, varying in shades from pale to vibrant orange, gathered on a buddleia in my garden. This is a once in a decade event in the UK.  Sometimes, the ever-present, but largely ignored, world of insects rises to the top of our agenda, and we see things differently. But for the speaker in Entomology, it seems, it was always this way:

My mother once told me they had my brother
because she found me in the conservatory
talking to bluebottles.

‘Bluebottle’ (like all the other poems here) is a sonnet. The half-rhymes have both a precision and an apparent randomness: ‘arse/stairs’, ‘jar/singular’ that reward examination. There’s much to pore over here, and the sonnet form underpins and enriches the layers of meaning as human experience is compared with the mysteries of the insect world.

In ‘Seven-Spot Ladybird’, the poet buys someone ‘slippers — red cotton bouclé / with little faces, two eyes, a nose, a smile’ and ‘a wooden box where all the ladybirds /of her garden might safely hibernate.’ And, then, a month, or, perhaps, a lifetime later, after the poet has spent ‘a hundred nights pillowed up / reading and drifting thinly on the pain’

                  [ ... ] she picked her way through
 the chaos of my kitchen, and made me soup.

In ‘Emperor Dragonfly’ the speaker writes about how she came home to her parents after her divorce. She remembers a dragonfly, and ‘The integument / of a nymph.’ The strangeness of that phrase led me to watch an RSPB YouTube film I would never otherwise have watched. I saw the Emperor Dragonfly nymph emerging from its ‘integument’ — the tough outer exterior — to become, in adult form, a thing of beauty. We are, all, like the speaker’s aging parents in ‘Emperor Dragonfly’, many versions of ourselves.

Aileen Ballantyne