white and grey border with bright red-light district central imageRented: poems on prostitution and dependency, Sue Johns

Palewell Press, 2018    £6.00

Culture of the night

Sue Johns’ pamphlet takes us into the world of ‘prostitution and dependency’, as its subheading says. Prostitution is an age-old and universal feature of societies, full of dark corners but also vulnerable humanity. An early poem, ‘Floralia’, is based on an ancient Roman festival. There is a call to arms to prostitutes with phrases like: ‘Slave sisters, this is your time’ and ‘flesh and fluidity are the weapons you deploy’.

‘Before the Pussy Riots’ is a sequence of three poems exploring the harsh reality of aspects of a woman’s place in different cultures. It initially invokes modern day Russia but cleverly includes quotations from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Quran and Manusmriti. I particularly liked the image of weaving:

Those girls, sentenced to sew
the warp of unease

Songs often contain a heartfelt commentary on life and Sue Johns uses quotations from the great Billie Holiday as a refrain in ‘Star — for Billie Holiday’. She links each stanza through a rhyming word: ‘again’, ‘rain’, ‘chain’ and ‘pain’. She also reinforces the musicality of the poem through rhythm and assonance: ‘I know crying won’t change a thing’ and ‘Men and the needle unease me’.

‘The Dancer’s Choice’ features many ballet terms (in French). This creates a deliberate contrast between an outwardly beautiful world of dance and the horrifying reality of a hidden abortion. The poem ends with a shocking visual image of ‘the baby protégée’ ‘leaving the sink with a grande jeté’.

The poem, ‘Instructions for a Summer Wedding’, concerns temporary marriages in Saudi Arabia. Powerful imagery conjures up the tensions inherent in the situation: ‘Know that Chanel smells of jasmine and roses / but that gold and loneliness have no aroma’.

Sue Johns brings to life Calamity Jane, the famous American frontierswoman and sometime prostitute, in ‘Looking for Calamity’. The poem ends ‘who just did, what poor girls did, back then?’

Women are often put in invidious positions but Johns gives them a voice in this thought-provoking pamphlet. Her poems contain a strong sense of empathy and acknowledgement.

Sue Wallace-Shaddad