Driftwood Publications, 2005 - £4.00
I’M TEMPTED TO SUGGEST reading this pamphlet back to front. On the final page, there’s an extract from Richard Henry Dana’s 1840 autobiographical narrative Two Years Before the Mast, a paragraph about the way the sea and sailing attract “the young sailor” with their romantic attraction, only to offer him “work and hardship after all”. Underneath there’s ‘a game’. Readers are invited “to enter ‘poetry’ for sea, and ‘poet’ for sailor in the above passage’.” Finally they are invited ‘to play around with ‘he’...”
Playing around with ‘he’ is one of the features of this unusual first collection. A recurring idea is that of transgender: poems titled ‘John Taylor’ and ‘Albert Cashier’ tell tales of men who were biologically women, while ‘How to Tell Your Story’ introduces the whole idea of gender revelation in unforgettable terms:
In writing your memoir, remember not to be truthful.
I guess that your circumstances are straitened
since we last spoke, and the pressure to be female
The ground shifts under the reader in an unusual and intriguing way, and there are moments of great tenderness—for Albert, for example, who is forced to “wear a frock” for the first time in forty years. His former girlfriend doesn’t understand: “He was just my Albert who knew about flowers.” But she does understand why “six months after they’d dressed him like a fool, he died.” In ‘Cardomom’, the narrator cannot compete with the sea, but her sailor lover smells “so exactly right that I cannot let go”.
The introduction suggests that the whole sequence of poems is “voiced by a Sailor, the Girl who loves him, and an omnipresent Showman”: I didn’t always feel secure in my sense that this was what was going on—to me some poems felt more slight and less well-connected than others. I thought the strongest poems were pinned firmly to people and their stories. But it is a very interesting publication—a little unreliable in its print quality on some of the pages, but nevertheless quite distinctive. It is almost impossible to create a poem that smells right. Read ‘Cardamom’. Cath Nichols can do it.