Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Sacrifice, Sally SpeddingThe cover is filled with a painting in muted colours of a whole set of people, in what look like working hats and caps. The front ones are sitting in a cart with alrge wheels. Behind them are more people perhaps assembled to watch the cartloads of people go past. At the foot of the page, where the road would be, another image is imposed of people marching at night. The author's name is centred in small black caps in the centre of the jacket. Below it, in large caligraphic font, is the title in red.

The Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2020  £7.99

Creature discomforts

Sally Spedding’s relentlessly focused collection of chilling poems is bound together by the dark threads of crime, history, death and — as the title suggests —sacrifice.

Almost every poem here tells a story. Many of the stories are true — the Moors Murders, the Holocaust, a two-centuries-old hanging — and there are footnotes to prove it. The poems may be set in our present world, in a supermarket, a boutique hotel, a holiday cottage. But underneath those unremarkable surfaces lie sites of horror and death. Even where the poems recall personal memories and visits, these places are palimpsests. In ‘Weekend’, the past bleeds through, inescapable 

                                                                                   while the
stove stands empty. Black doors agape. Ash on its slate sill.  [ … ]
From somewhere ekes the ebb and flow of laughter. The chink of irons.
A waiter bringing breakfasts topped by glistening
tomatoes. 

In that same poem, the ghosts are sheep heading to slaughter. As we are being urged to repair the rift that ‘civilization’ has torn between homo sapiens and the rest of nature, non-human and human creatures are equally present. ‘Soft shoe shuffle’ channels the kangaroo whose skin made the running shoes of Australian champion Roger Bannister. In ‘Man of the mountain’, the noble name ‘Athos’ belongs to a caged, ill-kept guard dog. In the title poem (the collection’s last) ortolan bunting are the sacrificial food at President François Mitterrand’s ‘Last Supper’.

Amid the bleakness, compassion is reserved as often for animals, birds — even flowers — as for human victims and protagonists. In ‘Hard shoulder’, a cat on the road, seeking her old home destroyed to widen a lay-by, is found

                                           in two parts. Eyes wide
open in the expectation of a bowl of milk on that
ancient floor.

Ironically, the collection begins with its most hopeful message, in ‘Tournesols near Bram’:

Yet how those dying Cathar prayers have blessed
these living blooms more richly than the rest.

But like the sunflowers, and like the human victims, the animals here have nowhere to run. I’m left wondering, with Sally — what have we done to them?

Mandy Macdonald