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Disappointing Alice, Rachel Piercey

HappenStance Press, 2019   £5.00

Competing symbolisms

After several reads of Disappointing Alice, I came away feeling both cautioned and encouraged. I took the caution to be about complacency in the face of the societal challenges which remain for women. I found encouragement in poems which act as a nudge when we’re flagging in the face of such challenges.

‘Song to Amelia’ is celebratory and affirming. It recognises how far women have travelled since trail-blazer Amelia Earhart’s time: ‘Roar with our forward-thrust— / change is history’s role for us’. The warning in this scenario is not to women but of the revenge which might befall those who would seek to undermine this progress:

How many things, between us,
we’ve made better. Come in, Electra. The cream jacket bears its title in caps and centred, one word per line in the top quarter. All lettering and imagery is black. Immediately below the title, the author's name in italics. A fairly large image occupies the bottom half of the jacket. It shows a medieval lady in profile. She has a slightly superior expression. She is wearing a tall pointed hat, striped like a barber's pole, and from the tip, a long flounced scarf dangles.
Come in, Electra. Come in, Electra.

Similarly, ‘Bad Apple’ points to a man’s projection of stereotypical traits onto a female partner, believing ‘her comely barrel-ful / to be tight-celled and stain free.’ The danger therein is that, in the meantime, she might

                [ ... ] slough off the heavy lid
and let the apples scatter,      for the thrill that they might trip.

In gentler vein, ‘My Sister’ relates the conflicting roles women have to play and the mistake of denying this. While women are natural nurturers and may happily take on domestic roles, this does not define them. They are so much more.  ‘He knew all this’ the speaker tells her sister.

From a female perspective, ‘Five Go to the Island Again’ charts the changing portrayal of women in literature and life. Anne is of an age where she was exposed to projections of women as primarily stabilising and domestic. Her daughter, however, has much broader societal impressions, and she might even better shape the choices available to her.

There is no room for smugness, however. Turning to Old England and its knights, ‘Chivalry Street’ deals with ambiguity. It challenges the idealism of those who might long for alleged simpler times, but also suggests we might be seduced into at least considering its false promise. The poem is tongue-in-cheek, self-referencing its own revivalism but, at the same time, acknowledging ‘the modern woman, whose symbolisms compete’. They certainly do.

Mhairi Owens