Apple, Fallen, Olga Dermott-Bond
Against the Grain Poetry Press, 2020 £6.00
Tapping the glass
Apple, Fallen is, among other things, a pamphlet about distance — the distance travelled by the falling apple, perhaps? Heck, the second poem is even called ‘always a distance’.
But it’s also about distance in terms of separation. The opening poem features a 17th century axe encased behind glass in a museum. ‘Glad of the distance between us’, the poet’s tone darkens, thinking about the uses the axe could have been put to:
I picture a neck exposed, pink sinews propped
like a stick of snapped rhubarb gleaming
with a graze of sugar beads before boards darken,
splinters stained again with a body spilled over.
Sometimes the separation and distance are more figurative. In ‘An Alternative Terminal’, there’s a conversation with a departed father in an airport the poet has ‘built [ ... ] with ink’. There’s a closeness in this poem, and the one before it, that’s missing from the rest of the pamphlet (this is not a bad thing, just an observation). Nevertheless, separation makes its (lack of) presence known at the end of the poem:
We make sure everything is declared. Like love.
Passengers only beyond this point. You wave.
In ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out), a person is (I think deliberately), separating themselves from flatmates:
They clatter back in high heels, short skirts, espresso dregs of eye makeup,
knock up fried egg sandwiches, spill milk; leaving me clinging
to their curdling sticky smell upstairs in my cardboard room.
However, despite this separation, the flatmates find a way to stay whether they are wanted or not. The poem closes with:
They linger under my skin as I wash up their dead plates.
Olga Dermott-Bond might be the sort of person who can’t resist tapping on the glass at zoos — not out of malice, but just to see what happens, and to try and reduce the distance between herself and the thing or creature she’s looking at.
Whatever her tactics, it works. No ‘dead plates’ were involved when I read these poems, but they have ‘linger(ed) under my skin’.
A beautiful storm
I was entranced by Olga Dermott-Bond’s astonishing images in Apple, Fallen.
In the opening poem, ‘Axe’, the narrator studies a 17th century executioner’s axe and imagines: ‘a neck exposed, pink sinews propped / like a stick of snapped rhubarb’. In the final stanza, the axe has become an image for a mother leaving her child:
A front door closing
as a silvered edge.
These uncomfortable images set the tone for the pamphlet. The poem leaves the reader on the word ‘severance’.
Images in the eponymous poem, ‘apple, fallen’, are hard-hitting. There is significant movement in the poem. Split into two stanzas, we witness a mother, in the opening line, with a smile ‘perfect and full’ as an apple, change to a ‘smashed skull’, ‘crawling / of ferment’, in the second stanza. She ‘has sunk her own tongue’, ‘hollowed’ by her ‘hope-laden daughters’. The final, indented stand-alone line, haunts me:
turn me over before you ask how I am.
Clever punctuation choices reinforce on the page images of a mind rotting. Traditional syntax breaks down in the second stanza — with capitalisation discarded after full stops, which feels off-kilter.
Most abiding, for me, are poems about the parent child bond. In ‘Singing me from heavy depths’ the images are gorgeous. A child becomes a ‘starfish’ in bed, with ‘hair all-jangling’ in the morning, sucking a ‘minute pebble of fist’.
‘Toaster’ and ‘An Alternative Terminal’ explore the close relationship of father and daughter. Toast with Dad is ‘love landing / soft, the right way up’. And ‘An Alternative Departure’ uses the semantics of the airport — Dad’s ‘jumpered warmth’ is the only ‘security needed’.
Yet even in tender moments, Dermott-Bond keeps it real. ‘Every day’ celebrates ‘the clean paint’ of a child’s voice, with ‘new words wet to the touch’, yet the mother’s voice is ‘raw’:
a caught gull cry
that circles in the evening.
Her ‘speckled egg-shell skin’ could crack.
Complex and startling — like the relationship of her protagonists, Fionn and Oonagh, in her five-poem sequence — Dermott-Bond’s writing might be summed up by the final lines of ‘Fionn courts Oonagh’. It is:
a beautiful storm.