Things Only Borderlines Know, Olivia Tuck
Black Rabbit Press, 2019 £7.00
Fairy tales and fables: stories of extremes
Things Only Borderlines Know opens with a quote from a nursery rhyme and is peppered throughout with references to fairy tales:
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
This opening quotation from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sets the tone for the whole pamphlet — these are poems about extremes of emotion. Tuck makes innovative use of children’s stories to explore, amongst other things, mental illness and autism.
In ‘The Princess and Her Sensory Processing Disorder’, the story of the Princess and the Pea is used to explore a condition common in those with autism, namely hyper-sensitivity. In the pamphlet’s final poem, ‘You Took Five Stanzas’, a patient whom the speaker met in a psychiatric hospital becomes
manic Jack I met in Devizes
with a cigarette, instead of a cow
on a rope or an enchanted bean.
In ‘Changeling’, a woman’s baby is replaced with ‘an elfin decoy’. The poem seems to explore post-natal mental illness through the use of this fairy-tale device.
One interesting choice is to refer to the speaker’s parents throughout as ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’. With the poems’ subject matter and style, and with at least one direct reference to Plath in the poem ‘Unstable Talk’, it is perhaps not too far-fetched to draw links with Plath’s ‘Daddy’. Although the speaker’s relationship with her parents here is much less troubled than Plath’s, nevertheless ‘Daddy’ also makes use of childhood stories and language to speak of extreme situations. Its opening words, for example, draw to mind the nursery-rhyme figure of the old lady who lived in a shoe (‘black shoe / In which I have lived like a foot / For thirty years’).
Tuck’s poetry equally makes reference to archetypal stories to tell a tale of extremes of emotion and situation. Through using the language of childhood to explore dark subject matter, these poems share something with those of Plath, perhaps one of the best-known poets to write about mental illness.
Things Only Borderlines Know is a powerful and intense pamphlet. Its fairy tales and nursery rhymes work well to bring home the essence of its subject matter.