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Painting of a woman, background in red and blue, yellow letteringPretty in Pink, Ruth Aylett

4Word, 2021     £5.99

Visceral womanhood: a manifesto against pinkification

In Ruth Aylett’s poems, stereotypes about women being the gentle sex are explored and refuted. In ‘Pink’, for example, the speaker describes with disdain an image of mothers wheeling

pink pushchairs
carrying small girls in pink furry hats,
with pink rabbits clutched in pink gloves.

In this pamphlet, women are dynamic, physical and alive; they cannot be captured in a vacuous selfie:

Freezing the face [...]
lies about its movement [...]

the play of thought
and feeling across
that surface proving
your river of beauty
    [‘Selfie’]

Women are also angry and powerful. In ‘Finis terre’, the poet cleverly compares a conversation between a man and a woman to the structure of a piece of volcanic rock:

Inside, she says
keeping her voice cool,
there’s boiled quartz
and a glitter of sharp crystals
.

What appears calm on the surface is fierce and bright beneath. ‘True Story’ touches on female violence and revenge, as the body of a woman’s abusive husband is found in her shed — ‘They found the fracture marks across his head / exactly matched the stone frog by her bed.’

But women are victims here too. ‘Titration’ explores what happens to girls who don’t conform to society’s expectations. The protagonist ‘looked a mess, climbed trees, / wrestled with her younger brother’ and was dragged ‘under a young oak’ by ‘enough of them to hold her down’.

Overall, though, the poems are healing pieces. The beautiful ‘Chosen one — sestina for the lost child’ circles repeatedly around a miscarriage, creating a prayer-like chant that slowly melts into hopefulness:

In the flare of autumn leaves
and bonfires, another child
carries a new future on its back.

These poems consider menstruation, childbirth, and the menopause. They depict women as vivid, three-dimensional and strong, a far cry from the ‘tutus and princesses’ (‘Pink’) to which some would have them aspire.

Isabelle Thompson

We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry*

This pamphlet is a powerful exploration of the challenges and prejudices which act against women’s equality. Articulate and political, Ruth Aylett deploys clarity of vision and agile imagery to navigate her themes of motherhood, social conditioning, and the struggles for sexual and civil rights. Every poem earns its place.

The poem ‘Pink’ refers to the word ‘pink’ no fewer than fifteen times. It directly emphasises and dissects ‘layer upon layer’ the expectations that girls conform to a stereotype:

in rooms from which
green, yellow, purple, red
and above all blue
are expunged and deleted.

The repetition acts as a mantra through which I read a thread of irony.

In ‘Moving matters’ a female child arrives for a new school year. She’s depicted as different, challenging, intelligent, substantial rather than image driven: ‘untidy, full of long words, too sure’, although accepted by the boys for her ability to ‘run, chuck a ball and shove’. The poet packs the lines with commentary on how little is expected of women from an early age. This child gets by under cover of being a tomboy:

Moved from a different jigsaw
where an odd but accepted feature
cannot slot into this new picture.

This theme is reinforced in ‘Molly’. The narrator reflects on the future available to this child. It’s an intimate poem of acceptance, charting her preferences and development as a seven-year-old. Yet, the final stanza suggests a hesitancy based on hope over experience:

crossing our fingers and toes that
your confidence and certainties
will never be squashed by any futures,
especially the ones we fear most.

‘Tales my mother told me’ is a tribute to the poet’s mother, a deft, moving piece about influence and inspiration. Story jars hold memories of a life clawing up the ladder of inequality.

I’ve heard Ruth Aylett give compelling readings of ‘When Rosa met Marilyn’ on two occasions. She inhabits both characters through the power of contrasting voices — each subject a witness to male discrimination.

Pretty in Pink is an honest and thought-provoking set of political poems.

Maggie Mackay

* Title taken from the Women’s Liberation Movement 1970 Miss World protests.