Pighog Press, 2011 £6.00
Reviewed by Niall Campbell, Matthew Stewart and Helena Nelson
Charlotte Gann’s The Long Woman is an accomplished pamphlet. And with the exception of a few instances of over-dramatic lineation (“I feel/ someone somewhere may have seen me once”) and poorly chosen euphemism (shy pink Middle England), each poem is well crafted, the thought worked through and resolved with assurance.
However, a number of times in the pamphlet (be it in an image or a turn of phrase) Gann displays a talent that promises a stronger work to come. The poem ‘Black Drops’ is one such example of this. The opening nine lines are strong enough, though I would be wary about the preponderance of ‘I’s’ collected in such a small space:
......All day I pad on bare cracked feet
......nowhere, jug heavy,
......in and out the kitchen door.
......I’m with the kids: feed them
......chicken, potato, ice cream;
......hear the six-year-old say thank you.
......But I can’t talk to any of the women who come:
......bear them orange mugs of tea, sit;
......I am sealed.
Here, the conceit of the routine is played out. The cadence is purposefully stymied. But it is not until the second half that the poem really comes into its own:
............ [. . . ]
......and I’m gaping from my high window;
......For miles and miles, see the dark trees gather;
......One moment fractures blue,
......and then the rain comes.
......One two three, drops big as bullets . . .
......and suddenly every mouth turns upwards
......and mine’s the biggest,
......and the first
......to drink and drink and drink.
Here is the poem. Evocative, brooding, steeped in shadow and rhythms. The times Gann attains these moments, such as in ‘Black Drops’, in the title poem, and in ‘Pocket’, she deserves higher praise than simply ‘good’. She appears brave and eloquent, and—more than this—challenging.
A word must also be said about the physical publication itself—slightly, uncomfortably large. The benefit of the standard size of a poetry publication is the ease with which it is slipped into a jacket pocket or travel bag, the poetry book designed to be carried with you. A strange decision, then, for Pighog Press to go against this with something bordering on A4. A challenge, too, for the poet dealing with all the extra silence of the white page. Happily, Gann’s The Long Woman confronts the silence well.
First things first—before the nitpicking moans, Charlotte Gann’s The Long Woman is full of skilfully written, thought-provoking poetry. The pamphlet itself is excellently presented, though inexplicably lacking a price tag. Pighog’s website seems to sell it at £6.00 with an additional £4.00 for postage, yet their Paypal facility charges £5.00 for postage and packing. Sigh. The blurb on the back cover, meanwhile, is just that. “Starkly beautiful . . . darkly economical.” Sigh again. “Sussex” gets four mentions in ten lines. Talk about hammering home a marketing point!
Moans over, let’s move on to the poetry. On a first reading my personal favourites were ‘Love Poem’, ‘Molecular Biologist’ and the collection’s title poem, so I then went back over the pamphlet in an attempt to explore just what I enjoyed about them and why they stood out. All three share a fierce narrative drive that’s compressed into the drawing out of details and the capturing of pivotal moments. They’re peopled by beautifully sketched characters that come to life via the flimsiest of detail, as in ‘Molecular Biologist’:
....... . . His brothers goggle wordlessly.
......All he can see is his own face, drained
......and strung, bulging in the white windows
......of their specs . . .
Terrific stuff. What’s more, these are the only poems in the pamphlet to be written in the third person. Is that significant? I believe it is. The first person of the pamphlet’s remaining poems might not necessarily be 100% autobiographical, but it does retain a set of constants in terms of tone and viewpoint that leads me to feel characterisation is less evident in them. It’s not that they’re weak pieces, but that the other three are exceptional. Maybe this is a direction for the poet to explore?
Gann’s language is full of strangeness, intrigue and darkness, but in a few of those first-person poems she seems to relish self-fulfilling poetics that seek menace for its own sake, as if such use of language lent extra depth . . .
...... You lead me on a thin leash to the lip
...... of our small red town . . .
............(‘Full Moon Over the Fair’)
....... . .When you’re gone
......I collapse, now stripped and melting . . .
In these cases, her first-person poems slightly overreach in their search for effect. Their use of imagery gives the impression more is always more. In fact, in this pamphlet’s best poems Gann shows the reverse is often true and that she has the skill and craft to prove it.
The Long Woman is slightly uneven, but verve runs through it. Charlotte Gann’s progress will be worth watching.
This is the sort of collection that attracts adjectives like ‘dark’ and ‘ominous’ and ‘brooding’. The cover design is moodily grey. There is a “murder/ of plump crows” in the first poem and she’s “white with shock and chalk” by page 10. We are, it seems to me, attracted to the murky and mysterious these days. Spooky poems do well, and Gann does ‘spooky’ well.
But she can do more. She can, in briefly sketched phrases, create a whole world. For example, here’s a men’s drinking place, from the point of view of a child, in ‘Drinks’:
......Standard lamps loom, shimmying tassels.
......Men bump against them, then apologise.
......Pale ale tankards made of pewter tilt back
......into open gullets. I watch whale
......tonsils through secret round windows as men
......condemn themselves to a life at sea.
In ‘Molecular Biologist’, I’ll just mention the passing of crisps, during a cold conversation in a pub (I think it’s a pub). The crisps “skitter out of their silver purse: // pale faces on dark wood”.
In the title poem, ‘The Long Woman’, there’s the birth of a child, unexpected, awkward, sudden:
........................Back in that room with thin curtains,
......a baby bulges, forces passage;
......taps her milk with short sharp beak; grows stick legs,
......a jagged mop of hair, wide shiny eyes;
......is off to school.
They are the sort of poems that leave swathes unexplained, and sometimes the spaces they open are dark and ominous, yes. At other times, there’s something touching and tender, or even faintly comic.
I am not fond of villanelles. ‘Round Yours’ didn’t change this feeling; and ‘Chattel’, which is also villanellish, didn’t either. Gann at her best is so good that she doesn’t need to succumb to popular repeating forms. (I don’t want to start a hate campaign against villanelles. There are at least two in the world that I like. I say only this: if you get to stanza three and think ‘oho here is another villanelle’—the same is true of the sestina—the battle is lost.)
Charlotte Gann is a talented writer, and this is her first publication. Here is the end of ‘Love Poem’, the opening piece. When I see this, I know I want to read more by the person who wrote it:
......He licks dry lips, lamp at the window.
......Stabs his nib deep in the inkwell. His new
......young wife starts, cheeks paling, eyes watering.
......Pauses at her stitch, but does not speak.
......He’s taught her about interrupting.