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The title poem
When a single poem gives its title to a whole collection how do we look at that poem? Why is this one lifted above the rest? Perhaps it gives an insight into how the whole set works together, or maybe it helps the reader recognise a connecting theme?
‘The Deal’ is the penultimate poem in this twenty-poem pamphlet. It bides its time. It isn’t going to unlock the collection from the first page. I like that. It leaves space for me to listen — to the nervous child in the bedroom cupboard (‘In Hiding’), to the girl envious of her elegantly tall school mates (‘Small’), to the person justifying herself against the effects of being afraid (‘The Fear’)
Listen, there are known scary things
unknown scary things and scary scary things.
I don’t think about any of them.
I think we can all shout Oh-yes-you-do! to that. So the opening three poems show us uncertainty and the uncomfortable feelings of trying to grow up — emotions which (though we don’t want to admit it in public) we still haven’t grown out of.
There are dreams and hauntings, too, which can’t be excised. In ‘The Massacre’, a bus-stop mis-heard as ‘Meathouse Place’ might later be corrected to ‘Neathouse’, but, despite the adult’s common sense, mental pictures associated with the mis-heard original persist —
In Neathouse Place there still remains
a faint stain on the polished floorboards
and the cat has gouged the table
with her unretractable claws.
So how does the title poem reflect back on these? In its title ‘The Deal’ suggests a strong promise, something clinched. The opening lines are compelling — ‘When I knew I was going to die / I walked up to the church in the Easter sun’. It’s where the poet ‘did a deal with God’. Clear-cut, straight-forward stuff, we imagine; after all, the poet’s survived to write the poem. It looks like a successful negotiation until the final lines unsettle it; five years on she’s ‘hazy on the details’: ‘Who promised what exactly?’
Doubt, uncertainty, fear; we don’t grow out of them. The title undercuts any expectations of certainty. These poems echo our current fears but delicately and with empathy.