Firing Pins, Jo Young
Ink, Sweat & Tears Press, 2019 £7.50
Conflicts of interest
Seeking to be the ‘whaler poet’, Niall Campbell became a target for ridiculous missiles. Jo Young, however is fully time-served as the soldier poet. More unusually, she's the woman soldier poet. In the British Army for over two decades, she’s seen active service in Afghanistan, and is highly aware of missiles, both metaphorical and real. ‘Never / underestimate wisteria against razor wire’ (‘Principes’).
Different kinds of duties and needs collide. Expected conflicts in war-zones double-detonate with more gender-specific clashes. Her collection opens by responding to army rulings on cosmetics:
I want those layers leaden,
galenic, Coptic magic full of ritual
I want it helmet-hidden.
[‘L'Oréal Paris Infallible Gel Crayon Eyeliner in Browny Crush’]
Conflict, conformity and rebellion. All in one pencil.
When the poet’s in the ‘red-ribboned danger zone’, she’s simultaneously ‘where mam’s raspberry bush had grown’ (‘Intertidal Rifle Range’).
Mortality in battle is to be expected, but consider the conflict when ‘Death went shopping at Etam and Woolies’: ‘Death does not come from the outside it priests / all life’. A cliff-hanger line-break lets that verb explode. It’s a device sometimes over-used, but Young knows when to pull her pin.
Those home/duty flashpoints flare throughout. A ‘thrice-nightly Chinook’ brings lullabies, and pregnancy’s first quickenings offer names mid-manoeuvres. There’s the unwinnable battle for the ‘friend lost twice over’ at the missed funeral, then the deeply contrasting messages of ‘I'm afraid’.
If some conflicts can be anticipated, the poet sets up her reader for other clashes. Only the female soldier poet could risk likening rifles to nursing infants (‘Firing Pins’), in discomforting, marvellous lines.
These are sharp poems of terse, layered language, but with heavy messages also coded with barrack-room humour ... that ‘dick in Dundee doing a Delilah’:
Was it the lack of wine? Or the thought
of what to do with those new hard thighs?
Young crushes easy binaries. Soldier, and everything else woman. A remarkable collection.
[All unattributed quotations are taken from the sequence of poems entitled ‘Lost Things: Afghanistan (v-vii)’]
The Balancing of Tensions
sweet meniscus, balanced as a withheld kiss
[‘Intertidal Rifle Range’]
In her introduction, Young describes what it means to be both a soldier and a woman — and indeed, a soldier and a person. ‘Conflict seems to be an inevitable part of being human,’ she writes.
The soldier is someone who falls in and out of love, gives birth, battles her body [ ... ] and has very mixed views about authority figures and geo-politics. Nevertheless, she soldiers.
Conflict, then — the tense, necessary holding of seemingly opposite things — is central to Young’s project here.
An example of this comes, perhaps, in the ways in which Young blurs the lines between weaponry and the human body. In the opening poem, ‘L’Oréal Paris Infallible Gel Crayon Eyeliner in Browny Crush’, descriptions could apply equally to the act of taking aim with a gun and to creating a kohl-rimmed eye. ‘I’m aiming for an intensity’, ‘I want a hard horizon, a darkening / stripe, a hungering gaze.’
This same blurring happens elsewhere. In ‘Lying in a Dark Ditch and Concerned About Your Photoreceptors?’, the human eye becomes a weaponised ‘night vision’ under attack by the enemy. In ‘(iv) Insomnia’, the ‘thrice-nightly Chinook’ gains a ‘heartbeat’. Most disturbingly, in the title poem, rifles merge with human babies to become ‘ferocious bony offspring.’
It is not only soft human bodies and hard weaponry that are held in balance in this pamphlet. Contemporary warfare exists alongside Roman, with poems titled ‘Hastati’, ‘Principes’ and ‘Triarii’. In ‘Intertidal Rifle Range’, the setting has multiple roles, being both a firing range and the former ‘childhood home’ of an old woman whose ‘mam’ used to grow raspberries there. Strikingly, in ‘(iii) Oldest Friend from Bitchdaughter Tower’, death and life are shown to be inextricably partnered. Death ‘priests / all life’.
These are only a few examples of Young’s balancing act. In Firing Pins, she explores the impossibility of being one thing alone. To be a female soldier is, by nature, to be several things at once — and it is this act of gathering disparate waters which drives the poetry.