Smith/Doorstop Books, 2009 £5.00
Reviewed by Helena Nelson, Kirsten Irving and Stephen Payne
The first five poems were astonishing: they seemed to me to unfold a story, a family story from the poet’s background. ‘Walking Back From school’ is the sort of poem you can walk into, it is so real: “Mum’s ironing,/ nuzzling Dad’s shirts with little wafts of steam”. ‘Fake Leopardskin Coat’ has the poet returning to her roots wearing the sort of coat that would label you there as a “tart”. But she revels in “The courage of colour,/ of shining out from the ordinary”. Baker has a terrific turn of phrase.
Continuing this set, ‘Hobbies’ centres on family life, and it’s a life that’s chilling, in which the mother unravels and rolls up jumble sale sweaters for the father to crochet into bedspreads. She “silently breaks/ and knots the wool as though her life/ depended on it”. Then there’s ‘How My Brother Sings Karaoke’, which starts ordinary/funny and ends heart-breaking. The culmination of this group is ‘Planting the Cherry Tree’. It’s a week after mother’s seventy-third birthday and the poet has to plant something “more twig than tree, a mass of roots like tangled wire/ or her wild hair those years she stayed in the house”—a hint of former misery. Dad passes a spade with a broken handle to the poet. Brother Mike, “hungover”, is “too shaky to dig”—and here is the family group:
It feels familiar, all of us standing around,
slightly inept, with the wrong tools, wanting to do
the right thing.
How beautifully put, how masterfully understated!
Then the spell broke for me with ‘Self portrait with kippers’ which went surreal and lost the family connection. There were poems in settings (‘Holiday Let’, ‘House’, ‘Coastguard Cottage’ and ‘Lamping’) which may have had connections with each other, and they drew me in but didn’t tell me enough—like a taste of something going on, something that might make sense of everything, but never quite getting there. Then more surreal stuff in ‘Afterwards’—and a sense that these were interesting poems but their cumulative effect weakening. There are two poems about men leaving homes, ‘Flight’ and ‘Man, Leaving’, and for me there was mixed success for the first because I got confused by the syntax in the middle (“Gingers patch, chomping on beetroot tops”); the second I liked a lot but wondered if two poems about men leaving was too many for one pamphlet.
The final poem, ‘The Last Cigarette’, which I take to be a dream poem, is magnificent. The pamphlet ends with these remarkable lines:
You could hear traffic passing at night,
as I can here. We are on the edge
of a moment, all of us bright as we can be
and burning, as much as we dare.
At her best in this pamphlet, Sally Baker is terrific and even when I was not compelled, I was interested. These are poems you can think about long and hard, and the more you think, the more intrigued you are.
On the inside cover of The Sea and the Forest, Polly Clark describes Baker’s poetry as “skilfully capturing the magic and longing behind everyday acts.” Indeed, in this collection, we find such oddities as mermaids organising church flowers and admiring their tails beneath anglepoise lamps, crochetwork seemingly growing like fungus and a dreamlike wedding in a school. Perhaps best exemplified in the line “washing machines and mythical fish”, this collection is concerned with pinning myths onto reality, populating the title’s two common fairytale settings in a new way.
We are shown a figure in ‘The Mytholmroyd Giant’ who is part architectural anomaly, part monster, compared to Gulliver, and “a man buried in sand/ by his children”, drilled at, smothered, tickled and surrounded by life, development and the passing of time. In ‘The Women in your Wardrobe’, Bluebeard is revisited, this time with the narrator somewhat complicit in the monstrousness, closing the wardrobe once more on what has been revealed, the foot of one corpse becoming little more than an obstruction.
Sometimes, however, Baker’s attempts to elevate the everyday fall a bit flat, almost as if the author is unaware that an idea has been well worked before, and is in need of a more left-field approach if it is to be re-examined. ‘Fake Leopardskin Coat’ compares a woman seen as scandalous by her community, a “tart” because of the eponymous item of clothing, with “a mother and daughter in matching tracksuits [. . . ] the same life lived over twice”. The coat-clad woman is described as “shining out from the ordinary” and later revealed as the speaker herself, which makes the reference to the tracksuited pair seem slightly presumptive and condescending. Likewise, ‘Call Centre’ seems to assume certain traits, disparaging towards the worker rather than the institution, and painting an oversimplified image of the operative in their lonely bedsit. Neither piece breaks new ground with its approach to the subject.
The collection reads for the most part like a portfolio of portraits and landscapes, with some sketches tucked in too. To take this literally, we have ‘Self-Portrait with Kippers’, in which the newly transformed speaker sees “waves crack open fishing boats/ and spit fishermen in my lap.”
There are also tender snapshots of family life, with the repetition in ‘How My Brother Sings Karaoke’ building a depiction of the brother through the various sounds of singing, learning a language, laughter, the sirens of an ambulance and finally back to singing.
The core of this pamphlet is perhaps a group of five poems: ‘Holiday Let’, ‘House’, ‘Coastguard Cottage’, ‘Lamping’ and ‘Afterwards’. These poems share a metaphor of place as a state of mind, and they are prototypical of Sally Baker’s quiet style, in which the power of such metaphors is gently nudged into the reader’s consciousness.
‘Holiday Let’ begins:
That summer I lived in a woodcutter’s cottage
with latched doors and a black stove.
There were peonies in the border, a locked shed,
space for a car and caravan, which I didn’t have.
This is followed by three more 4-line stanzas, the last of which ends:
and once, a swallow flew right through the house
as if no-one was home.
These lines are illustrative of what I like and what I’m less sure of in these poems. They’re seemingly straightforward and unshowy, written in full sentences, with line breaks at phrase boundaries. Most often the poems are arranged into regular stanzas with few very long or very short lines, a natural cadence rather than any metrical patterning. Finally, the sound-effects are quiet too, for example, the movement through “cottage . . . latched . . . black . . . locked shed”—just as understated as the poems’ themes and conceits.
Not all the poems are quite as quiet: there is a poem about a brother with a propensity for drunken karaoke. And not all are so realistic: there is a fantasy about the women in (I presume) a lover’s wardrobe, another based on Chagall’s ‘Bouquet With Flying Lovers’ (which I don’t think I know, but could almost picture on the basis of the poem).
If some of these poems fail for me, it is because the details don’t (yet) accumulate into a strong-enough mood. There are a lot of visual details—at a quick count 16 of the 22 poems have at least one colour name; I’m not always sure what work they’re doing. But the poems that succeed convince me good poetry can be quite close to prose, and that the most original thoughts can be just one step away from conventional.