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White cover with black lettering top left, and a mustard yellow triangle filling bottom rightOh Be Quiet, Natalie Shaw

Against the Grain Poetry Press, 2020    £6.00

Unlocking the trap

Natalie Shaw writes with a sharp eye. She disturbs and surprises with menace and poignancy in her poems. Throughout Oh be quiet I felt caught in moments, trapped by some kind of personal crisis.

The poem ‘In the changing room we see’ explores one of my own big dreads: stripping in front of strangers. Body image is a huge issue for today’s women, judgements ‘refracted onto a wall’. We see ourselves in the glare of bright lights. Not a good look. ‘Our sideway looks’ at ‘naked selves’ reveal the complexity of a body, its beauty (‘smooth thighs’) and life experience (‘scarred tummies’).

The narrator in the poem ‘Self-portrait as apple tree’ is direct and bold. The word ’espalier’ is reinforced by ‘I am. I am’. This speaks of a determination to be accepted for what she is despite any underlying suggestion she’s not good enough. She’ll stay flat against the wall, invincible, holding to her strengths.

‘Climb through my windows, climb up my tree’ is an interesting, sinister poem. Shaw mashes up folk tales — Red Riding Hood, The Princess and the Pea and Rapunzel — to tell the story of a woman trapped by a man’s power. It’s a strong piece, covering themes of patriarchy and abuse:

The wolves waited under the bed. He kept them on scraps,
snickets of children and small scoops of heart.

When I read ‘How to tell your son he has no friends’, I immediately related the lines to my own experiences as a teacher of autistic students. Such an empathetic, healing poem full of love. Both the parent and the son are, as in most of the pamphlet’s poems, trapped. The tactile ‘dark’ combined with the ‘sparkle’ of a swim enable them to connect:

Tell him it’s your gap too, tell him,
tell him. Hear him breathe.

Beautiful. In oh be quiet Natalie Shaw has delivered poems blending tenderness with gritty resistance to external threats. Much to relish and return to.

Maggie Mackay