Driver, Naomi Jaffa
The Garlic Press, 2017 £6.00
On the edge
‘Edgy’ is an adjective often used to describe poetry these days though it often doesn’t mean much. But many of the poems in Driver, though not without humour and fun, are actually on the edge, balancing in a moment of acute uncertainty or fear.
One vertiginous edge is the awful knowledge, for a woman who loves children, that she isn’t going to have any of her own. But there are worse things, aren’t there? Tell that to a person who describes her future as ‘blank, leading nowhere, without issue’ — when that’s only part of what’s going wrong.
She’s got a ‘self-pitying heart’ to cope with (‘Deal’), and 'the incessant fizz of past and future / refuses to shut the fuck up’ in ‘Mindfulness Practice’. Her mother is hiding dementia symptoms (‘Missing’) and she is leaving a partner after ‘twelve and a half years’ (‘Sign’).
In ‘Driver’, the poet’s mother pushes her to another kind of edge by revealing — lightly, casually — that when she left her as a baby for eight weeks, it wasn’t because of her singing career. She simply went to drive her violinist husband (the poet’s father) round America.
That abandonment in infancy has been, the poem suggests, another kind of driver — something that may explain adult self-tormenting behaviours. Anguish and fury towards her mother is vivid but suppressed: ‘There was no dagger in her Honda Accord’. But there is a dagger in the poem.
Other considerations quiver with uncertainty, like the ‘new life’ she isn’t sure she wants in ‘Deal’ and isn’t prepared to talk about in ‘Talk’. It’s a time of inescapable and threatening change, although ‘Time of My Life’ (which is about menopause) deliberately avoids that word.
The final piece is ‘Poem for Wednesday’, a day when there is ‘all to play for’, a day which is a ‘seesaw pivot / of possibility’. Even (and perhaps especially) on the edge there is a little bit of merriness, and that is a kind of saving grace:
and oh Wednesday, I think,
come on, let’s go for it,
let’s be lavish and splash out.
These are strong and truthful poems, unafraid to be personal while universal in their emotive edge. They celebrate uncertainty; they refuse to reassure; they share privacy, lavishly.
The Shadow of Death
The poems here are often very personal, exploring emotional suffering and many difficult issues: separation, love, cruelty, violence, infertility and death. Some of them have startling juxtapositions, where we can clearly see the poet’s mind leaping from idea to idea.
What interests me is the way death is depicted in different ways, some explained and some not. ‘Getting Together’, my favourite poem because of its enigmatic nature, is about ‘the man in the boot of the car routine’. He is tied up and misused. His fate is not spelled out. There is cruelty and jokiness and a surprisingly pleasant and accepting ending — ‘no better way to finish the week’.
In ‘Let’s Go Look at the Dead Pig’, the poet uses going to look with her sister, niece and nephew as a shocking image of death:
And so we cross the street to stare
into the back of the butcher’s van
where a nose-to-tail bisected corpse
swings pinkly on hooks.
In the same poem, she unexpectedly declares a strong love for the children but states it in terms of death (‘even if no one believes you’d rather / die than save your own skin first’) and finishes with a poignant image of absence, her name sitting alone on a line of the family tree, the space below it blank.
A factual approach in ‘Taking Up Our Posts’ has a list of family: the sister, mother, best friend, grandfather, father, all of whom she had been anxious about but who, after all, have managed to cheat death. The line ‘No one knows who will go first, or how’ acts as a pivot before a second list. This describes the deaths of five people, all in tragic situations, a quiet woman, ‘undiscovered for two weeks, / the window dark with flies’ and a friend’s father ‘teeth turned black and gone by Christmas’.
In a third list, the poet describes herself as ‘flirting’ with the idea of different methods of suicide, all of which she rejects — with the proviso ‘But not yet’.