Oh Be Quiet, Natalie Shaw
Against the Grain Poetry Press, 2020 £6.00
Unlocking the trap
Natalie Shaw writes with a sharp eye. She disturbs and surprises with menace and poignancy in her poems. Throughout Oh be quiet I felt caught in moments, trapped by some kind of personal crisis.
The poem ‘In the changing room we see’ explores one of my own big dreads: stripping in front of strangers. Body image is a huge issue for today’s women, judgements ‘refracted onto a wall’. We see ourselves in the glare of bright lights. Not a good look. ‘Our sideway looks’ at ‘naked selves’ reveal the complexity of a body, its beauty (‘smooth thighs’) and life experience (‘scarred tummies’).
The narrator in the poem ‘Self-portrait as apple tree’ is direct and bold. The word ’espalier’ is reinforced by ‘I am. I am’. This speaks of a determination to be accepted for what she is despite any underlying suggestion she’s not good enough. She’ll stay flat against the wall, invincible, holding to her strengths.
‘Climb through my windows, climb up my tree’ is an interesting, sinister poem. Shaw mashes up folk tales — Red Riding Hood, The Princess and the Pea and Rapunzel — to tell the story of a woman trapped by a man’s power. It’s a strong piece, covering themes of patriarchy and abuse:
The wolves waited under the bed. He kept them on scraps,
snickets of children and small scoops of heart.
When I read ‘How to tell your son he has no friends’, I immediately related the lines to my own experiences as a teacher of autistic students. Such an empathetic, healing poem full of love. Both the parent and the son are, as in most of the pamphlet’s poems, trapped. The tactile ‘dark’ combined with the ‘sparkle’ of a swim enable them to connect:
Tell him it’s your gap too, tell him,
tell him. Hear him breathe.
Beautiful. In oh be quiet Natalie Shaw has delivered poems blending tenderness with gritty resistance to external threats. Much to relish and return to.
Pamphlet as box
There’s a poem in here called ‘Reality box’. That box contains — consumes — all the worst things that could ever happen: ‘There is nothing it turns away / My children’s terrible deaths / The plane collapsing through the sky’. And inside it, the poet also seems trapped:
Everything’s muffled: my exploding heart
my exploding head
The box has it all
There are all sorts of worrying things in the world of this pamphlet that need containing. And there are times when they are not contained (except of course, they are — because they’re held in the poems). In the opening piece, the title breaks into the body:
I know you only invited me in for a coffee, but
I have eaten your house
In a deadpan tone it goes on to explain: ‘I ate your 4x4 too’; ‘How will you drive the streets of Muswell Hill now?’
Another poem, ‘Things that I say to my enemy’, catalogues a gaslighter’s account:
I ask her a question I know she can’t answer, I snub her
at parties, I steal her ideas; I pretend I can’t hear her
These are poems that break down social mores, and barriers — while maybe shedding light on why we have them. ‘Self-portrait as apple tree’ starts:
I’m so espalier.
Don’t mess with me, I’ve had years of training.
What’s behind that wall you might ask?
Boxes are important. All hell breaks loose without them. So ‘Inside the fig’ reads: ‘our brothers have eaten / into our beds to fuck us.’ It’s a frightening world held inside this pamphlet. A world where ‘Dunstanburgh Castle’ might seem the only fortress safe enough to hold human appetite: ‘I shook at your edges, your terrifying edges’. There’s humour here, laced with deadly seriousness:
Your black edges, your great rooflessness;
I could say anything and no one would hear.
If I looked too far out, we both knew
I’d fall, like a little rock, into the sea.
Go ahead, you said
and I said I do, I do.