Reviewed by Jo Langton, Christian Ward and Helena Nelson
Rogerson is a master (or mistress, rather) of rhyme and half-rhyme, in equal measure, and delicately balanced rhythm: don’t lose your step—unless she wants you to, that is. These words are hot coals through which we gracefully flow, only to realise that where we end up is no longer ember, but strongly ablaze: “Hot words take shape/ in cloud cold air” (‘Friends’).
The recurring heat of fire, smoke, and death converge with the cold facade of modernity (bullets, the M25, an iPod), and it’s within the resulting cloud formation that these poems reside, forming droplets of rain that both cleanse and conceal. Simultaneously explicit and illusive, we are lulled within the walls of “This house [. . .] where strange things occur” (‘House of Echoes’).
A perpetual undercurrent of half-rhyme destabilises, a rocky and dangerous footing: one foot wrong and you’re down in the gutter, overwhelmed by the darkening subject matter. This is exemplified in ‘Footprints’:
He followed and followed
and along the way
picked up a crowd curious
to see if the tracks
would fade. They didn’t.
The jarring echo in “way” then “fade” is compounded by the blunt interruption to the rhythm in the only short sentence: “They didn’t.” Rogerson writes predominantly in free verse throughout this collection, but the occasional glimpse of rhyme shudders, lingering lust grows.
In ‘Self-Portrait with Optics’ the neat rhyme of “four” and “allure” lull us into a false sense of security, before the sleight of poetic hand in “nightly” and “lights” unravels this falsehood, waking us from our rhythmic dreams to a “pillow of scars”. The twinned unsettling of form and content continues further in ‘The Tourist’ as the craggy repetition of ‘ox’ (in “window-boxes” and “intoxicated”) foregrounds the “filthy beggar woman” in the following stanza. Here, Rogerson uses italics to highlight the inane “who can recommend a pretty hotel?” which serves to make the dark seem darker by way of contrast: there is irony and gravity in equal measure within A Bad Influence Girl.
It is, once again, a sinister tone that haunts the closing of this collection: “Don’t make my last statement a linear one” (‘The Lovely Garden’). The juxtaposition between language and typography acts as an emblem for the content of this poetic anti-obituary, and epitomises Rogerson’s awareness of the limitation of the poem, the page and irony itself.
A Bad Influence Girl is a well-presented pamphlet with a quirky line-drawing on the front cover. The blurbs on the back from John McAuliffe and Alicia Stubbersfield tell me Rogerson’s voice is “confident and assured” and her poems are concerned with “a different way of looking at the world” but, annoyingly, don’t tell me much about the kind of poetry she writes. Minor gripe aside, this is a solid effort and feels nice to hold. Good value, too, at £5.50.
I enjoyed the strangeness of the poetry. Rogerson’s poems are set in familiar places and situations but end up somewhere else by the time the reading’s finished. A bible-salesman’s car is a “covered wagon” (‘The Book’), the titular ‘Bad Influence Girl’ has a “chorus line of ready-mixed Mojitos”, a neighbour lifts “his heels in time/ to a band that weren’t there” (‘Boy Next Door’) and people at the beach have “shark fins of sunburn/ that look good enough to kiss” (‘The Madness of Sunshine’).
The poems move quickly through various subjects—bibles, footprints, a banker meeting an inventor, a road trip, meditations on sunshine, love and other subjects. Some of the poems feel very intimate (such as ‘The Lovely Garden’, where the poet asks to be placed in a “round box” when she dies), and Rogerson often writes in a fable-like way, starting poems with “There is a”. The speaker’s convictions that there are such characters and places makes us want to suspend our disbelief for a moment and embrace these situations.
The opening poem, ‘Friends’, a recollection of a teenage experience, is a good example. It shows off Rogerson’s talent for delivering metaphors that carefully unfold (in this case fire/friendship) and memorable images (“a street of fire bright leaves”, “cloud cold air”, “petal-singed rug”). The poem is disrupted by the image of “they chit-chat/ back to school for double geography”. Rather than ending on “a petal-singed rug”, which would make the central metaphor a little obvious, the last line takes us somewhere else altogether.
I always start reading poetry books backwards – first the back cover and then flick forwards from there. I should probably change this habit because the blurbs put me off. I don’t want to be told this is an “outstanding debut”. I want come to that judgement, if at all, for myself. But I am a crabbit old poet, and this is a young cheerful one (this is clear from her photo) and she deserves better.
So I began on the last page with ‘The Lovely Garden’, which I liked, although the last line struck me as too obviously quotable, a little too heavy for the last line of a collection perhaps: “Don’t make my last statement a linear one” (and indeed it is included in Alicia Stubbersfield’s jacket blurb). This is a death poem: poet foresees own gravestone, and none the worse for that. There’s a sense of oddness I like here. My favourite line is “Best is fresh, second is dead, and last is none at all.” Something different there, and a lovely sense of rhythm—new meets old in a nursery death rhyme.
The penultimate poem is ‘Someone is Missing’, again ominous: poet sees funeral from a window, but the dead person is apparently not there. The hearse has arrived but where is the occupant? There is a neat twist at the end. The driveway where the funeral cars have assembled is “your driveway” and “You . . . watch from next door”. Some lovely little touches – “There is an assault of flowers”, for example, and the expressions of the people in the funeral cars “are grave enough”. Towards the end of the poem there is some curious repetition and it occurred to me it might be a proof-reading error: “They are looking for someone./ There seems to have been a mix-up./ They are looking for someone./ There seems to have been a mix-up./ Someone is missing.”
This is what happens when you start at the back. Had I started at the front, I would have known. Repetition – odd repetition—is a feature of Janet Rogerson’s style. In the first poem (‘Friends’), “They sit/ in easy chairs smoking. They sit in easy/ chairs drinking tea and dunking.” In the title poem, ‘The Bad Influence Girl’, “She says what do you think of Gaga of Gaga/ of Gaga? Don’t you just love her?/ Love her shoes?”
Rogerson also uses ‘then’ a lot, not as another repetition but because things happen in narrative steps with odd consequences. In ‘The Bag’ she says “Please don’t tell me stories of doom/ because I have a bag that I carry them in.” She has “collected stories for the bag since childhood”. And here they are, in a pamphlet, odd snippets, curious repetitions “with multiple possible endings that you shuffle like a bogus fortune-teller” (‘Road Trip’).
Her calling card is a sense of strangeness, and she does that thing with language that makes you notice a single detail as if for the first time—in ‘The Madness of Sunshine’: “Have you seen the way/ a single tear will corrupt the sand?” And yes, this is different, delightful and even, as the blurb insisted from the start, outstanding.