What the House Taught Us, Anne Bailey
The Emma Press, 2021 £6.50
There is an intriguing tone to this pamphlet, which renders it far more complex than meets the eye.
On the surface, these are straight-talking poems, evoking the acceptance of a child who adapts without question to the world around her. But behind this is the detached adult observer, often ironic and wry, who talks in unsettling and surreal metaphors.
In ‘When the lake came’, we are told that:
it occupied a space in the living room
between the sofa and fireplace
It ‘made no demands’; ‘we had to stop the children from jumping in’; ‘We walk round it’, and ‘get on with our lives.’ But, the poet asks:
What would happen if we leaned over
and looked right in?
At every turn, these poems invite us to do this, seeing beneath and beyond the seemingly innocent or obscured.
In ‘The little girl and the universe’, the child is trying to work out how to push her doll’s pram up a steep path. She is learning, grappling with life, until a man ‘seeing a role for himself,’ intervenes, unaware that:
until he came along
the problem had been a relatively simple one.
As here, the perspective is often flipped in one understated or subversive last thought. ‘The problem with magic’ describes a pivotal moment in a child’s life in terms of a decision to either continue up or down the stairs when her grandmother arrives ‘with the news of her father’s death.’ The child assigns herself the heroic role of caretaker to her siblings, a coping strategy that is devastatingly undercut in the final lines:
It has never occurred to her
that she could have chosen to cry.
Similarly, in ‘I Was Struck By Lightning While Ironing’, the comically bizarre and yet dangerous intersect. The incident is described in prosaic terms (and form) without any fuss: ‘a loud bang. Everything stopped.’ But we’re left with the image of ‘a lethal scorch the exact shape and size of the plate, slightly above the left breast.’
Anne Bailey’s poems leave a similarly lasting impression.