HappenStance, 2009 £4.00
Reviewed by Hannah Eiseman-Renyard, Lizzy Dening, Alex McRae and Young Reader, Callum Binns
Hannah Eiseman Renyard:
Sally Festing has written in many different forms, including as a biographer, journalist and radio dramatist, and the blurb speaks of her having a “life-long passion for exploring the links between people, art and landscape.”
The first two poems certainly get straight on with this theme: ‘Footsteps’ is a musing on the processes after a daughter has died (‘Outside, embalmed/ Churches, concrete, leaves. Dumb”), whilst ‘Children on a Windy Mountain’ uses extremely pretty imagery to describe the scene “They could be six black arum lilies blowing”—but since I am certain that these are written about real occurrences in the poet’s life, I feel a little removed, and more than a little uncomfortable in attempting to analyse them. Whilst of course the authenticity shines through, in ‘Children on a Windy Mountain’, two of the children are named, and the author hints at their subsequent fates, which—as a reader who doesn’t know these people—makes me feel that a barrier has been put up—I can’t ever truly grasp these pieces from my stranger’s viewpoint.
In contrast, ‘Widening the Sky’ also used extremely close, personal experiences, but seemed to give the audience all the information they need. Concisely recording the other families’ dislike of Festing’s children’s bi-racial relationships—the poem simply and powerfully records how all this fades away when “grandchildren smile from peppercorn eyes.”
‘Getting Up Ahead of Everyone’ is definitely my favourite piece in the collection—a short, fun contemplation on the bizarre occurrence that ‘Samuel Johnson once found a fried egg between the pages of a book.’
‘Pumpkins’ and ‘Elderberries’ both contemplate the living land, the change of seasons and people, which seems to be one of Festing’s main voices, and the confidence she feels in this mode shines through. Also in this mould is ‘Stripping the Willow’—which I found more affecting for the action it also contained in amongst the very writerly descriptions:
The slung rope hangs
this massive saw, raping
the stillness, scattering birds.
Though others in this vein are certainly accomplished, I find it’s the crux where human and natural worlds interact which is the most powerful.
The poem ‘Fool’ I found to be a very moving contemplation on aging: “Every fool is maimed.” It contains a hint of defiance in and around old age which I find very seductive: “I’m more than my art. Such is the plight/ of the troubadour, I scuff their hearts.”
This pamphlet certainly has a lot of linking themes, and it is often beautifully wrought, but I feel sometimes the themes are a little too close to the author, and not exposed enough for the casual reader to truly engage.
‘Salaam’ either means ‘peace’ or can be used in greeting. As a title it suggests Festing’s playful attitude to language and her interest in our own mother tongue. This is demonstrated in ‘Salaams in Jerusalem’, in which she explores the linguistic effects of different greetings:
the kick of gutturals at the back of the throat
drops a new day from the woken hills
first light flies out
from the sky
This poem’s reference to “red in the bougainvillea” hints at Festing’s obvious love of the natural world, and flowers in particular. Salaams is an explosion of “black arum lilies”, “lion’s shag” of sunflowers and bracken uncurling “pale heraldic horns”. As these quotations suggest, the foliage in the pamphlet can be equally glorious and sinister, and most of the poems have an underlying darkness, like the cold beauty of a Venus Flytrap.
For example, ‘Wallflower’ contrasts the childish naivety of a game, “so turn around and face the wall and turn around again”, with the aching reality of old age.
You dance around
the margins through bright flowers
you planted yourself before they burst.
She explores the fickle nature of modern language and how it can seem inaccessible to the elderly: ‘You stand outside your bones/ as you do the sentences of the time.” Her character hobbles in the gaps between words, finding her experiences inexpressible.
Aging (and the gap between generations) is widely explored in Salaams, and in ‘Fire’, a child is seen learning the language of her mother, through flowers—a tradition clearly passed down through Festing’s family:
Ep-il-o-bium, the child
writes cursive, feeling the ping of sound
on palate. Mixing mauvish pink. Bound
by circumstance and shape, she holds
her breath till almost faint before (impelled
to dip) she colours tongues, lips, wounds.
This poem’s ending speaks powerfully about the inheritance of the child, from the innocent tradition of learning flowers and the mother-tongue of their names to the sinister element of family pain, the ‘wounds’ the matriarchy will pass down to her wordlessly. She is both “bound” and “impelled”, and has no other option than to accept her history as she becomes a woman. This is the inexpressible baggage that we discover has been locked in our DNA from conception.
Festing’s collection benefits from further reading: the clever links between each poem are not all discoverable at first. Language, aging, mothers and the natural world seem a mixed bag of topics, but Festing is able to blend them as seamlessly as the child in ‘Fire’ mixes a mauvish pink.
The clean design of this pamphlet made me instantly want to pick it up. The cream-coloured front cover shows a stylised woodcut of a peony-like flower beneath the title. There’s a flash of colour inside, as the poems are book-ended by two bright orange inner pages. I thought of these yolk-coloured pages while reading the poem: ‘Getting Up Ahead of Everyone’, which has the delightful mini-introduction: “Samuel Johnson once found a fried egg between the pages of a book” and is short enough to quote in full:
Walking into the shed of morning
and spotting sun,
he flipped light over the horizon.
Leaves of learning stroked
with long sharp rays of yolk.
The playful humour charms instantly, with its inventive take on the image of flipping a page, or an egg. The linking between the egg and the morning sunlight made me think of the phrase ‘sunny-side up’.
Many of the other poems in this hugely enjoyable pamphlet are equally studded with unexpected, strongly visual images. ‘Children on a Windy Mountain’ begins with the surprising transformation of hikers to exotic flowers:
They could be six black arum lilies blowing
from the summit of Wetherlam,
rooted to fissured rock.”
Building on the image further, the poet tells the reader to “Look again:/ anoraks bloom/ above heads to wind-funnelled silhouettes”. There’s a confidence in the assertion, which is borne out by the clarity of what the reader ‘sees’ when reading it.
In ‘Plums’, the slim branches of a laden plum tree are “a sunset of wands”, and the picked fruit themselves are “swollen; tulips, lips,/ bruisable beneath the skin”. A sunflower, painted by Van Gogh in ‘Vincent’s Flowers’, becomes “a lion’s shag/ one-eyed”. And in the atmospheric ‘Automat’—which precisely captures the isolation of the Edward Hopper painting by the same name—a girl sits alone, late at night, in a Pittsburgh station café holding a cup, “trying not to let her hand/ hear the knock of her heart”. Her alternative is to sit somewhere even lonelier:
Better than the papered living-room,
radio like winding wool,
waiting each day for night
The poems give up more with each reading. In ‘Salaams in Jerusalem’, the rhythmic incantation of morning greetings in Arabic, and the simplicity of the diction, begin by just conveying the physical pleasure of observing the beauty of a Middle Eastern morning:
Sabah Al Noor
first light flies out
from the sky
but in a later couplet, a darker undertone slips in:
red in the bougainvillea
red in the heart of the white and shiny stone
The red colour of the bougainvillea flowers is redolent of the colour of blood, in an understated reminder that their beauty is in a city at the centre of years of religious and cultural conflict. The enigmatic final line of the poem tells the reader that “there are many ways of saying good morning” —an understated reminder of the diversity and complexity of the Middle East.
I would recommend Salaams wholeheartedly. There is so much richness and detail in the language and imagery to enjoy and come back to with further readings. It’s an assured, warm-hearted collection.
Young reader, Callum Binns:
As usual with this publisher, the production of the chapbook is great. The paper is high quality, and the sudden injection of colour from the orange endpapers, combined with the exotic title, seems to promise something out of the ordinary. The cover illustration is quite beautiful, and the subtle curves of the leaf and eye-like appearance of the flower give the book a natural feel, which seems fitting because the poet is a horticulturalist.
True to the feel of the book, the poems seem to flow naturally. I didn’t always understand them, but I suspect that they are actually well thought-out and carefully constructed. I was occasionally (but not often) bogged down by some unnecessarily complex language, but I did have a strong emotional reaction to the majority of the poems, even though some obviously weren’t directed towards people my age. Sally Festing is great at using recognisable natural images, such as this from ‘Fire’:
Today the rose-bay willows flush
through ragwort into innocence of sky.
Pods explode to bottle-brushes, fly
away their floss. Flame turns to ash.
and from ‘Pumpkins’
and when it rains,
a sea of sailors in yellow oils.
It was this sort of imagery that appealed to me most in this collection. Sometimes, however, the images are less convincing. It took me a long time and some help to work out that the opening stanza of ‘Footsteps’ must be referring to a lift (elevator.)