The Grass Boat, Imogen Forster
Mariscat Press, 2021 £6.00
Imogen Forster’s grandmother was sent into service aged eleven and when she speaks
She tells me only that this house is a lonely house
and that she has been taught a few words in French
in case they should be required: le lait, the milk;
le pain, the bread; le sel, the salt; la bonne, the maid
The reader is told nothing about the physical appearance of the grandmother, and yet The Grass Boat is packed with physical descriptions of men. The fingers of Imogen’s Grandpa, for example, are ’contracted into claws, unable / to grasp a tool’s handle’ (‘At the Station’), while Mr Bond the butcher has fat fingers, and the man who cuts the cheese with a wire has fingers that are thick.
In ‘Coming from New Cross’ the man on the bus wears a turban. He is old and dressed in white, ‘leaf-slender, a steel bangle / falling loose round his wrist bone’:
He is quiet, blood-warm,
and it does not seem
impossible that he might
simply stop breathing now,
both of us silent together,
both on our way home.
This man on the bus is very different to the men in the poem ‘Fat Men’. In this poem, ‘Toad lies snug in its hole / while bellies grow drum-hard under shirts, / button straining encumbrances.’ Then the narrator asks:
How many are loved with hot pies and chips,
thick yellow custard and pounds of shortcrust
worked in cool hands to crumbly perfection
and rolled out on boards year after loving year?
No actual numbers are provided but the suggestion is — a lot. There’s no physical description of whose ‘cool hands’ prepare all this food. And here I put my hand up and admit I assume it’s female people who are busy in the kitchen.
What I’m trying to say is that the women are very present in these poems but not, it seems to me, in such a visceral way as the men. It’s not a criticism, just a point of interest.