White bordered cover with a bright abstract image of upside legs in coloured shapesDog Woman, Helen Quah

Out-Spoken Press, 2022     £7.00

Muscular imagery

I was struck by the physicality of many of the images in this pamphlet. For me, this gives the work real edge. So, Helen Quah writes of daughter and mother ‘unscrewing / our stomachs’, for instance, in her first poem ‘Like Deers We Eat’.

‘Suburbia’, a humorous poem about women living a semblance of life in the suburbs, has some very strong stanza endings, such as ‘Even a smile can be a knot’. The fourth stanza begins with a strong use of assonance and alliteration:

Dragging handbags up the street
scuffing silk bottoms on the ground.

‘[When I Marry a White Man] II’ is one of a series of poems which thread through the pamphlet (although mysteriously the first poem is not there). Quah captures the drabness of a hotel room very effectively:

The room smells burnt like carpet
has the stale colours of old sitcoms.

I found the poem ‘The Sentiment’ rather puzzling but loved the image: ‘The sound cold / like a radiator / settled at the bottom of a lake’. And, in ‘You Saw A White Woman Selling Islamic Prayer Mats as Gifts’, the poet creates a startling juxtaposition between huge words (themes) like ‘God’ and ‘Mother’, and ‘chicken fat’:

God, Mother. Each name
an engine running on memory

and doused in chicken fat
on the dining table

This ability to surprise also occurs with the traffic image in ‘[When I Marry a White Man] III’. The poet relates that her husband

was threatened by the dirt of the place
and the sweat and sun cream
poured into his eyes like traffic.

The ekphrastic poem ‘Dog Woman’, written in response to a series of paintings by Paula Rego describes ‘muscular women. / Beaten back hair. Kinetic jaws.’ Later in the poem, these women ‘wear fear’s dark oil / to keep warm’.

Helen Quah kept me slightly off balance throughout this pamphlet — with her use of strong and surprising imagery. A visceral sensation for me.

Sue Wallace-Shaddad