Student Bodies 1968, Diana Cant

Clayhanger Press, 2020          £5.00The jacket shows a monochrome photograph of a stone gateway. All text is black, the title in bold lower case near the top, the author's name just below centre in a closely similar fontsize, the press name at the foot, much smallwer. Each piece of text is placed against a pale grey background, like a label, but see-through.

Social and Psychological Decline

Student Bodies 1968 is Diana Cant’s first pamphlet. It focuses on the breakdown of a relationship between two students and is set against the backdrop of industrial decline in the Potteries. The blackness of the town, with its coal mines and dark canals, runs like a watermark through the book.

The human relationship, like the town, is unravelling, moving from the bright optimism of new beginnings through anxiety and signs of mental instability to self-harm and death.

The collection starts brightly with ‘Student Bodies 1968’, where the relationship between two new lovers is  portrayed as: ‘New-born-raw / we know each other.’ The student scene is set: ‘The air is rich with revolution

and the lovers:
to the towns and towpaths
that weave this place together;
the mines, the pitheads, the canals

In ‘Stoke on Trent’, we discover the social context of decline:

Back to back, the houses line up,
boarded up and waiting, blind, war-wounded,
dry scarred and scabbed.
The canal shrugs past, grudging, miserly […]
We are wading through decay.

The lover’s mental health problems begin to rise to the surface. In ‘Knutton’ his ‘fragile foothold on the earth’ is ‘crumbling / as you clutch at your thudding head.’

The deterioration spirals down to self-harm. In ‘Keele University, Horwood Hall’, the lover steals the poet’s knife, locks himself in the bathroom and cuts his wrists:

blood in the water,
the shrill cacophony of emergency […]

I even failed at that
you tell me later.

The lover is hospitalised, continues to self-harm, and dies, leaving the poet grieving for what might have been.

The last poem, ‘Butterton’, recalls ‘the small bowl that we bought together […] small reminders of a life’, and concludes:

Be certain I have not forgotten: here are strawberries
and my love, never fully ripened by a carefree sun.

This is a strong and moving pamphlet, detailing the death of an industrial society and a fragile individual. The poet handles the threads confidently, and conveys the power of emotion without falling into sentimentality.

Rennie Halstead