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Disappointing Alice, Rachel Piercey

HappenStance Press, 2019   £5.00

Toppling Intensity

Rachel Piercey beckons us into a kaleidoscopic world in which identity and expectations constantly shift. Everything is on the move and ‘change is history’s role for us’ (‘Song for Amelia’). Many voices, not all of them human, speak to us from the deep past to the personal now. We time-travel through twenty-one poems and centuries.

The poems are deceptively lucid—no outlandish metaphor or unfamiliar territory. Piercey takes us down by a river, through a park, into the Gents at the cinema. She gets the hoover out. She introduces us to a locksmith, Kate Bush, mediaeval knights, the Famous Five grown up.

But these familiar characters and scenes are used to open up a world of possible interpretations that are at once discombobulating and exciting. Take just the title: Disappointing Alice. Is ‘disappointing’ an adjective or a verb? If a verb, is Alice the object or subject? Is Alice the familiar heroine of a topsy-turvy, hallucinogenic narrative, or is it an Australian town, ‘deep in the desert / [...] where the gold / shades into the bone’ (‘Deep in the Desert’)? It is exhilarating to fall down a very English rabbit hole only to find yourself in the dry centre of a vast continent.

The poems here are full of women feeling the seismic movement of time. They question where they stand in relation to old certainties and rules, be they rules of the pastoral, fairy tale or chivalry or of domesticity and duty.  The children’s game, ‘Guess Who’, furnishes Piercey with the opportunity to entice us into very serious play indeed. By inviting us to inhabit it with our very human insecurities, the game’s simple innocence is fogged as

We start to talk
about souls and the unfamiliarity of age.

We parse over and over
the toppling intensity of the wait

Kathy Pimlott