A brown cover with a painting of a woman and flowers, a bird on her shoulder. Lettering below this on right hand sideUnbottled, Olivia Dawson

Maytree Press, 2022      £7.00

The many ‘un’s that lead to understanding

I enjoyed Olivia Dawson’s debut pamphlet, Unfolded (Maytree, 2020), and was keen to read this, her second. Unbottled tells a Who Do You Think You Are?  story, charting Olivia Dawson’s quest to discover the identity of her biological grandfather.

I noticed how many words began with the prefix ‘un’: ‘untitled’, ‘unravelled’, ‘unlovable’, ‘unzipped’, ‘untruth’, ‘unforgetting’, ‘unlike’, ‘uncertain’, ‘unbroken’, ‘underwater’, ‘unnamed’. I noticed that the pamphlets’ titles, Unfolded and Unbottled, also share this prefix and realised that these ‘un’ words were vital in this story of uncoverings and uncertainties.

The poet plays with form ingeniously, each form a different representation of ‘un’ (as in unknown, uncertain or absent) The opening poem ‘Spitting into Bottles’ (about DNA testing) cleverly gives us a potted family history as a sort of nursery-rhyme-cum-puzzle:

My mother’s mother has a lover
my mother’s mother’s lover is a puzzle
my mother’s mother leaves my mother
in a Home for awkward silences.

In ‘Once Upon a Time once upon a time’ (about Dawson’s mother’s adoption) we find two stories co-existing, the second told in a ghost font. It begins:

near Deepdene Bridge over the river Mole
a lonely girl grew plump on rosehips.
One evening a solitary woman strolled past

‘Alternative Choices’ is a multiple-choice poem, showing that we can neither undo nor fully understand the past:

She scrawls lists of moments/mistakes/triumphs
she enjoys/regrets/forgets like the boy
she fancied/abandoned/believed.
She clings to the daily visitor/crossword/headache
to avoid rejection/hope/discovery

As well as the above examples, there are erasure poems, and variety of shape and found poems — all matched perfectly to content.

The grandfather is traced, but much remains a mystery. ‘Alternative Scenarios’ is addressed to the poet’s late mother:

Through a maze of smoke and mirrors
I can’t decide what narrative

you might have adopted
as your fiction.

It’s a fascinating and well-told story. I enjoyed it immensely.

Annie Fisher