Bottle, Ramona HerdmanThe jacket is cream coloured, A5. The title BOTTLE is in large caps in the top quarter. Below it, centred, is a drawing of a bottle, a little sketchy with a sketchy label. An old style bottle. The author's name is centred in small italics below this.

HappenStance, 2017   £5.00

Bringing back Dad – father, daughter and drink

The poems about Ramona Herdman’s dad in this collection make me feel I know him. He’s proud and humorous and a great smoker and drinker, happy in his addictions: his first morning smoke settles his chest; he’s stopped getting hangovers; he clears up after his kitchen drinking sessions and goes to work early before the family wakes.

Bringing Dad back from the dead, addictions intact, is his daughter’s dearest wish. Despite fearing him, she’d like him as a drinking companion.

For me, ‘Two Death in the Afternoons, Please’ most vividly evokes the mixture of fear and longing. It imagines an afterlife where:

    no one would interrupt to say this wasn’t actually heaven,
this delicious blunting of feeling, this merciful cessation,
and that there was something outside that was better –

like walking out on the seafront together, wind and water-roar
and saying something risky and being understood.

That walk on the seafront opens up wonderful possibilities in a way I can share, but I soon remember the earlier part of the sentence: the speaker isn’t prepared to relinquish her own and her father’s notion of bliss. Similarly, the subsequent and final line quietly undermines the powerful ‘wind and water roar’. The linking ‘and’ suggests that ‘walking out on the seafront together’ and ‘saying something risky and being understood’  are equally natural, good, and unconnected with drink – but the risky ideas the poem has already taught me to expect are all connected with drink, which is said sometimes to make living possible or lift one ‘to arm’s-length from caring’.

The courage required to make such risky statements, coupled with the concluding ‘being understood’ makes me sense an almost religious tone – perhaps because I’m reminded of George Herbert’s description of prayer as ‘something understood’, and also of his mix of rebellion and acquiescence.

When Ramona Herdman addresses her thoughts of her dad to her dad, she feels understood. She can’t be so sure of her readers. I think/hope I’m getting there.

Janet Loverseed 

Do you want a top up?

‘Wine O’clock’ is a feature of many Western women’s lives and Ramona Herdman explores this phenomenon as well as an inherited love/hate relationship with drink in Bottle. From the delights of the ‘First drink of the night’ to the ignominy of the drunken stumble home (‘main drag, one-heeled, rain? / Not the morning lightning. Not the refrain / (just like last time, Never again’ in ‘Not Never’), Herdman accurately (and refreshingly openly) describes the highs of chemically enhanced nights and the lows of hung-over mornings.

Although a number of the poems evoke the poet’s whisky-loving father and longing for his return as a drinking partner, it is the poet’s empathy for the female drinker’s situation that particularly appeals to me.

‘The Drink is Not The Problem’ succinctly summarises (in eight telling lines) the lot of the drinker reaching to fill her glass to drown perceived sorrows. Another female-oriented poem, ‘Mes Braves’, celebrates girls on a night out ‘without coats, without tights, in the year-round rain’, producing a vivid picture of that drunken stagger between bars of the joyous, partying ladette. And yet … and yet … we know the downsides of the ‘old yellow devil’ as well as the poet does (I tell the story like grace) and it is this juxtaposition which ultimately provides the pamphlet’s tension. 

The list poem ‘He’s in his Altitudes’ (offering us many arcane and interesting ways to say ‘he’s pissed’) would work equally well using the female pronoun and this would bring into question the relatively new normalisation of female drinking culture – ‘He’s Adam’s apple up’ for example, or ‘He’s been bitten by the tavern bitch’ could take on very different meanings with each term pre-fixed with a ‘She’.

This particular Bottle rings resonantly with this reviewer, as it will for many readers and writers, and I enjoyed sharing a tipple from the HappenStance 2017 label with Ramona. Cheers!

Jill Munro