Student Bodies 1968, Diana Cant
Clayhanger Press, 2020 £5.00
Social and Psychological Decline
Student Bodies 1968 is Diana Cant’s first pamphlet. It focuses on the breakdown of a relationship between two students and is set against the backdrop of industrial decline in the Potteries. The blackness of the town, with its coal mines and dark canals, runs like a watermark through the book.
The human relationship, like the town, is unravelling, moving from the bright optimism of new beginnings through anxiety and signs of mental instability to self-harm and death.
The collection starts brightly with ‘Student Bodies 1968’, where the relationship between two new lovers is portrayed as: ‘New-born-raw / we know each other.’ The student scene is set: ‘The air is rich with revolution’
and the lovers:
to the towns and towpaths
that weave this place together;
the mines, the pitheads, the canals
In ‘Stoke on Trent’, we discover the social context of decline:
Back to back, the houses line up,
boarded up and waiting, blind, war-wounded,
dry scarred and scabbed.
The canal shrugs past, grudging, miserly […]
We are wading through decay.
The lover’s mental health problems begin to rise to the surface. In ‘Knutton’ his ‘fragile foothold on the earth’ is ‘crumbling / as you clutch at your thudding head.’
The deterioration spirals down to self-harm. In ‘Keele University, Horwood Hall’, the lover steals the poet’s knife, locks himself in the bathroom and cuts his wrists:
blood in the water,
the shrill cacophony of emergency […]
I even failed at that
you tell me later.
The lover is hospitalised, continues to self-harm, and dies, leaving the poet grieving for what might have been.
The last poem, ‘Butterton’, recalls ‘the small bowl that we bought together […] small reminders of a life’, and concludes:
Be certain I have not forgotten: here are strawberries
and my love, never fully ripened by a carefree sun.
This is a strong and moving pamphlet, detailing the death of an industrial society and a fragile individual. The poet handles the threads confidently, and conveys the power of emotion without falling into sentimentality.