Breaking the Surface, Katie Hale
Flipped Eye, 2017 (flap pamphlet series) £4.00
The other side of the story
How many sides has a story? Katie Hale’s poems break up the surface of familiar narratives and let other voices give their versions. The well-known story (the one running in the reader’s head) strikes sparks when delivered from an unexpected angle, and the poet uses the energy this creates.
‘The Raven Speaks’ has a short epigraph from Genesis but it doesn’t name, directly, the tale of Noah’s Ark; it leaves the reader to piece together the context, to be actively involved in what’s going on:
For a month or more, he kept us
in the dark, locked
in his mad tessellation of wood.
There’s a double meaning behind being kept in the dark; it’s not only ignorance but also, for all the animals, the ‘greyness of captivity’. If you’ve lived free as a bird, then the ark is a cage and Noah a jailer, so when you’re flung out, on Noah’s mission, why would you go back?
As for the ‘lily-winged dove’ finding the olive branch — you see her
pinch that little spurt of green
in her petite, pampered beak,
and promptly nip it, dead.
In ‘Siren’s Song’ the seductive music becomes an act of kindness, a joyous and merciful death for exhausted Greek sailors who fill the first four quatrains —
They came out of the mist: the old,
the young, the in-between,
knuckles big from rowing, palms
ringing from the brine.
To the siren they are like ‘men / dying on battlefields’ and her side of the story takes over the final four quatrains. The siren song has been an instinctive response, soothing the sailors’ suffering, ‘a balm / to lighten them’ until their leap into the ocean, their eyes alight and hope re-kindled, swimming and splashing until —
Their strokes weakened.
We held them, one by one,
as their hearts slowed. Our tune grew soft
and sad. Then they were gone.
A gentle death and kindness, told with tenderness — nothing like Circe’s warning to Odysseus. These are just two of the stories that won me over to Katie Hale’s refreshing and fascinating retellings.