Black cover with mustard sidebar, orange and yellow triangle-pattern; white lower case letteringfinishing school, Michaela Coplen

ignitionpress, 2022     £6.00

The crafty art of brevity

I was instantly attracted by the ambiguous title and by the striking contents page to Michaela Coplen’s debut pamphlet, finishing school. Each of the twenty-six poems has a single-word title, and there’s a poem for each letter of the alphabet (‘Apple’, ‘Bug’, ‘Chest’, ‘Dress’ through to ‘X’, ‘Yawn’, ‘Zipper’). No poem is longer than a page, and many are very brief. The abecedarian format is well suited to a pamphlet, and particularly appropriate to this one because of its chronologically-presented exploration of childhood, schooling, adolescence, and coming-of-age. Each poem seems to be a subtle ‘lesson’ in the poetic I’s self-understanding.

In the notes at the back, Michaela Coplen acknowledges ‘every poet whose craft has taught me to be crafty’. She goes on to name some, including Alicia Ostriker, Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson and Sharon Olds. She gives several examples of where her poems have been directly inspired by others’. For example, her poem ‘Zipper’ is ‘after’ ‘Dance Russe’ by William Carlos Williams. I like that she credits the ‘after’ poems in the notes rather than in the main body of the pamphlet. It keeps her own poems uncluttered and allows them to speak for themselves, which they most certainly do — in a fresh, intelligent voice.

Like Emily Dickinson, Coplen compresses a lot into a short space. The eight-line opening poem, ‘Apple’, ends:

In school you are so quiet.
You can play the quiet game.
Then the mind begins this squeaking
like a mouse or a garden gate.

And see how this extract, from the poem, ‘Egg’, subtly catches a young child’s early sexual awareness:

Holding to my mother at the lip
of the public bath — Look
these men have penises!

I tell her and she laughs

a laugh that skims her shoulders
like the loosing of a robe

There’s no space here to say everything I’d like to about this pamphlet. What I would say, though, is that, as Michaela Coplen continues to steer her crafty craft, hers will definitely be a name I look out for.

Annie Fisher