Stewed Rhubarb, 2013

Reviewed by Clare Best and Stephen Payne

Clare Best:

This neat-and-clearly produced pamphlet contradicts its title. A nice use of limited colour on the inside and outside of the cover, lends substance and elegance. The recycled paper is a good weight too, so show-through isn’t a problem.

There are some truly arresting poems here. The main part of ‘Preview’ (though not the detached first line, which seemed out of place) — shaped like a crescent or the curve of a pregnant belly — is a tender and evocative piece addressed by the mother to the unborn child. Although there are quite a number of foetal scan poems out there, this one is refreshingly straightforward and all the more poignant for that.

The most effective poems are those where the content has found its form most completely. ‘County Antrim, 1973’ shockingly juxtaposes the aftermath of an ectopic pregnancy with a reference to “John’s kneecaps / splattered on the floor of the site hut”. ‘A Kind of Dancing’ skilfully uses a traditional ballad form to explore further the terrible persistence of Irish wounds. ‘The Boy Who Breaks My Sticks’ is another piece where form is well matched to content, the short lines tugging the reader through memory to the dénouement “the crackle of sticks / and the resin scent / of long ago.”

The final poem of the pamphlet ‘Do You Want To Play?’ packs the strongest punch of all, using familiar playground language and allusion to suggest a compact and chilling narrative of pain:

She caught no stardust.
Twinkle twinkle little
never made it over
the rainbow shade of bruise [ . . . ]

No yo-ho-ho, just a bottle of
O-U-T spells rum.


Stephen Payne:
Stewed Rhubarb are a new name in pamphlet publishing. This publication is visually very appealing, with an eye-catching cover graphic representing Rohan Gillespie’s statue of W.B. Yeats from whose famous ‘Prayer to my Daughter’ the collection’s title is taken.

Anne Connolly’s own family is a presence in many of these poems, as is the Northern Ireland where she was born. On their website, Stewed Rhubarb describe themselves as publishers of “spoken word artists”, and a few of these poems seem to fit the performance-poetry bill, with their regular metre and rhyme. ‘Bee Division’, for example, uses a bespoke 7-line stanza and triple metre to comic effect:

Those bees are inferior, their emerald posteriors
mark them as insects of fun.
Their offspring are smelly, they steal Royal Jelly
and fritter about in the sun.
Throw them out of the hive! Why should they be alive
when their betters are working?
No concept of shirking. You finish the task you’ve begun.

‘A Kind of Dancing’ works a different trick, using a jaunty ABCB ballad form to tell a story of War and Peace, and a Troubles knee-capping. The stark contrast of form and content is affecting.

In general, though, the poems do not seem particularly to be performance pieces, and rather to appeal to fans of mainstream lyrics. They’re mostly in free verse,  describing particular scenes or stories with a vivid emotional focus, such as a failed pregnancy, or the onset of dementia.

‘The Top Step’ shows us an old man in a wheelchair:

He set his face to the sun,
reached for what was always there
in the full scorch of June

Those second two lines are somewhat abstract, it seems to me, and characteristic. Quite often a noun — sometimes an abstract noun — is personified or animated by becoming the agent of a clause, or by being given a human modifier. For example, the first stanza of ‘The Top Step’ continues

or hidden in the accumulation of cloud
that held back rain long enough
for rationed care to wheel him out

and elsewhere we find “a charitable chair”, an “uncertain sky”, “poverty lay awake”, “dyslexic penitence” and “No refills for ambition.”

This gives the poems a slightly old-fashioned air, but it’s a pleasure to encounter a technique that seems defiantly non-contemporary. It’s a gesture perhaps, along with the cover and the title, to the author’s admiration for Yeats, who is addressed in a small lyric ‘Being W.B’, which appears to sympathise with him concerning the difficulties of mundane parental duty in the face of “the beyond that called throughout your days”.