Self-portrait as a diviner, failing, Michelle Penn
Paper Swans Press, 2018 £5.00
The Work of Hands
In delicate layers, Michelle Penn stitches together an identity cut from patterns of emigration. The recurring image of hands acted, for me, as a guide to the journey.
‘Family Portrait’ introduces the speaker’s grandmother, ‘holding out one pale winter hand / toward the Cape of Good Hope.’ Johannesburg is initially a refuge from anti-Semitism and war, exchanged for ‘the sewing machine’s rat ta tat tat.’ A thousand suits are sewn ‘to school a surgeon,’ the speaker’s father, who deploys his healing needle in Soweto.
Apartheid forces another migration, to the US, accompanied by an African canvas of the diviner, whose hand is ‘reaching // gathering ancestors / to cast her spells, spirits / of misfortune’. Aunts who have lost everything carry on knitting, blindly absorbed — ‘all the / world is discord and they never drop a stitch.’ Penn varies her forms to contrast the physical and the spiritual work of hands: the aunts are knitted into a prose poem, and floating lines of free verse express the diviner/the self.
Denver is desegregating its schools, and the child of the family experiences painful initiations. She takes a needle to pierce her ear, opening it to wisdom according to Zulu belief, only to hear school-room racial taunts. In ‘One of the tribe’ she extends her arm in a teenage time-trial, holding a thimble of blood. It grows heavier until she has to drop it, ‘empty palm / frenzied / against / the lightness / of air.’ Such rituals seek the identity of a group, but the self is nuanced, uncategorisable.
Another ‘Family Portrait’ shows the diviner, summoned by the speaker, offering hope: ‘She extended // one hand [...]: / It will never be too late.’
In the final extraordinary poem, the speaker strips herself of both clothes and flesh, everything her forebears have sewn together. Shedding all layers, Penn memorably reaches out to the reader, revealing a purely human wish to ‘give, offer yourself / cure the world’s indecencies.’
This assured and affecting debut is a well-deserved winner of the Paper Swans Press pamphlet competition.