Unfolded, Olivia Dawson

Maytree Press, 2020    £7.00

Fascinated by fans (& ampersands)

Unfolded is a confident debut pamphlet by a poet who understands when to be clear and when to be mysterious in her poems. This is the art of the fan — the art of conceal-and-reveal — and fans figure in many of the poems.

Although Dawson loves fans, she makes it clear that she is not going to be sentimental about them. The title poem, ‘Unfolded’, opens like this:

He spreads his decorative fans
wide like can-can dancers’ legs
which distorts them over time

In a later poem, ‘The Lost Art of Speaking Spanish’, she instructs us:

Learn to be fluent
with a fan

Then, a little later:

fold your fan
beside the bed

before the bliss
of a siesta

and if he leaves you
hurl it straight

We hear the subtle whisperings and flutterings of fans throughout these poems. ‘At the Fan Museum’ begins:

they lay out a white cloth, watch me
tease fans, frail as birds with broken wings,
from tissue paper musty with moth.

Wisps of silk fly out like seeds,
but nothing disturbs the hush

Not all the poems feature fans. There are poems of family, friendship, memory and love. Two poems mention knitting, including the delightfully playful poem, ‘&’, which begins:

This ampersand
is a knitted stitch
holds us together.
Mr and Mrs or A&F
always and forever

Fans like secrets, and so does Olivia Dawson. The penultimate poem, ‘Endnote1’ has a footnote to no fewer than thirteen words in the poem, allowing for two different readings.

I learned a lot about fans from this pamphlet. I learned that ‘verso’ means the reverse side of a fan, and that fans are sometimes decorated on the back with secret messages or erotic pictures; I learned that a ‘fontange’ fan is a lacy headdress. The pamphlet comes with a postcard showing a labelled fan, so that you can learn the technical terms. Unfolded is a beautifully thought-through publication, and the cover illustration by Alice Parker is gorgeous. I’d say it’s definitely worth a flutter!

Annie Fisher