In ‘No Better Than She Should Be Red’, the speaker, rescuing the washing from the rain, rewards herself with ‘alpine strawberries […] shock-sweet little nippled sherbet candies’. Like these strawberries, there’s a shock and a sweetness to the poems in Ramona Herdman’s brilliant pamphlet. And it’s the poet’s marked ability to render sensual experience so viscerally that gives the poems their impact, as in ‘Shave’:
The backs of men’s necks
queue on the Tube.
Hot breath and the mustn’t
of reaching to touch.
The tension of being so close to these strangers’ bodies stirs the speaker’s memory of her father, a ‘widower, too ill to go out’, and how she felt when she shaved his head: ‘Such uncomfortable trespass, / shudder and prickle’.
In poems like ‘Marilyn’, Herdman uses her gift for sensual detail to make a point:
How can we blame you for blurring life
with alcohol and barbiturates,
when we all want to rub our faces blind
on your soft stomach, your breasts
We’re so close that we’re complicit, close enough for Marilyn Monroe to ‘breathe sad bourbon fumes / into our mouths’.
Desire in these poems is often dangerous for women. In ‘Anemone’, the image and feel of the eponymous sea creature is used to describe how with men it’s ‘Always the ones you don’t want / wanting to suck your fingers’. Women are expected to ‘open up / like an anemone for them — / be mother sex’.
However, there are moments, elsewhere, of tender intimacy. In ‘Valentine, thirteen years in’, love is rendered through imagery that’s movingly particular:
Love, I want you clothed.
I want you to yawn and stretch
so I glimpse the reach
of skin at the base of your back
under rucked fabric.
It’s language such as this — physical, intimate and specific — that underpins a skilful evocation of the complex nature of desire, both its darkness and its joys.