HappenStance Press, 2009 £4.00
Reviewed by Hannah Eiseman-Renyard, Kirsten Irving, Tony Williams and Sphinx Young Reader, Callum Binns
The backcover blurb (with its interesting diversion about elephant crap) somewhat sets the tone for an irreverent, offbeat look at life in this HappenStance Press pamphlet.
The third poem—‘On bringing up girls’—is a piece I have thrust under more noses than I care to count since I was first given this pamphlet to review. What I’d like to do is simply reproduce this piece in its entirety, since I don’t think I could explain the poem any more succinctly than it explains itself:
Aren’t you going to clip her wings? they said.
That’s usual for a girl her age, isn’t it?
and we said we didn’t want to clip her wings
and they watched our little daughter grow
bright and strong and they said
Aren’t you going to tie her feet? That’s
advisable for a young girl, isn’t it?
and we said we didn’t want to tie her feet
and they saw a young woman growing
clear and brave and before they could say anything else
we said, Now it’s time to teach her to fly
and they fell back.
They are teaching her to fly, they repeated,
teaching her to fly.
How wonderful, said their daughters,
and how interesting.
I absolutely adored the defiance, the triumphant tone in this piece, as well as the bittersweet ambiguity as the other voices’ daughter’s remark “How interesting.” The last time I saw femininity, gender roles and inter-female relationships examined in such a way was reading Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye—which I also adored. Though the imagery in ‘On bringing up girls’ is not exactly subtle, I can’t think of a better metaphor. Though it has perhaps been overused, it is done with a deft enough touch that 'On Bringing Up Girls' more than gets away with it.
Though not every poem in this collection evoked the same level of enthusiasm in me, when Rose Cook is good, she is very, very good. The imagery is accessible, but the observations unusual. In ‘Love May Visit’ the quick sketch of a dragonfly with “muscled legs which trembled/ and clung light and trusting onto my skin,” was just perfect. Though I wasn’t sure where or how this simile resolved, the deft description kept me wrapt.
In poems such as ‘Postcard Home’ the simple voice of is the young traveller is captured succinctly—the speaker unaware of just what fear they are causing in the reader with asides such as “If you hit a rock on the speedboat/ everyone dies basically!” The collection approaches its themes as quick sketches of moments, not lifetimes of experience—and as such the reader can dip in easily, without needing any background.
The collection’s themes appear to be the quirkiness certain of the everyday, identity (women’s specifically) and a strong recurrent theme of motherhood and childhood. Reading this as someone who does not have children—I nonetheless found the voice brilliantly engaging, well-observed, and each poem stood very capably on its own. I’ll be getting a copy for my mother. And for the record: my mother is pretty damn cool.
everyday festival, like all HappenStance pamphlets, is gorgeously simplistic in its presentation. The almost tribal birds on the cream cover and the informal, increasingly surreal first-person biography are disarming and inviting. And it really feels like the collection opens up to you from the get-go. The poetry brims with grief, pride, romance and sorrow, and it’s refreshing at times, if slightly over-explained on occasion.
‘Love may visit’ is a wonderful mixture of romance and sex—the beauty of the dragonfly set against its horny frustration and “need to breed”. Then there’s the off-kilter closing of “then flew straight up like/ an aquamarine helicopter thief” and the overall focus and conciseness of the piece. Unfortunately, the preceding poem, ‘Postcard home’, wastes its sharp, context-delivering title by book-ending the poetry with “Hello” and “Love you x”.
‘Poem for someone who is juggling her life’ is both a neat sentiment and an interesting use of repetition in the mimicking of the juggling motion. Can’t help feeling it would fit well in Daisy Goodwin’s irritatingly oversimplified ‘poems for life’ column, but perhaps that’s a personal ‘brr’. There is, however, a playfulness of rhythm and form in this piece, bolstering the soothing effect of the words.
One of the most interesting, but also the most troubling, pieces, is ‘On bringing up girls’. It begins with the suggestion of clipping the child’s wings—a nice metaphor for restricting and pigeonholing girls through their upbringing—and builds towards a terror on the part of the uncomprehending “them” that the girl will be not only allowed, but actually be taught, to fly. It’s a great conceit with an outstanding final line: “How wonderful, said their daughters,/ and how interesting”. The toppling of the old system is effectively foreshadowed. However, I’d have sympathised more with the parents of the unclipped child had the poem consisted simply of the progressively more panicked questions of the establishment figures. Those parts of the poem in the parents’ voice, consisting of statements like “they watched our little daughter grow/ bright and strong” and “they saw a young woman growing/ clear and brave”, come off as a little smug.
Overall, the strongest moments in this collection come with the more bizarre imagery of babies flying the walls, the suggestion of wearing a fish head, becoming a pantomime horse and the omen of the toad leaning on the speaker’s foot. Juxtaposed with the everyday warmth and interaction between characters, these odd flashes provide the real festival. Indeed, the title poem might have benefited from taking the mundane elements and linking them to the realm of the fantastical, taking it from an observational piece to an exploration of the way in which the everyday can be perceived as magical. Cook’s taste for the quirky and unreal is the sort of thing that really makes a collection stand out. I’d like to see the weirdness on a longer lunge. Let it run.
A combination of striking image and writerly restraint makes everyday festival an impressive pamphlet. In the first poem the speaker asks “Why are you walking like a clown?”
and you freaked out and said you weren’t,
you were walking normally but with awareness
and you stomped off,
still wearing your boots
and I remember thinking how funny you were
and how your hair shone blue in the sun
I’ve had to quote most of the poem to get across the tonal assurance and the skill with which Cook string together a long sentence using ands and line breaks—making it look easy. This quiet skill works well alongside the dreamlike oddity of the imagery:
The glass showed my eyes, quick green
wild sticklebacks in a rain pond,
small teeth, toy piano keys.
(‘My mother’s hand mirror’)
One or two poems, however, seem to go on past their natural stopping point. ‘At least/ I know I’m not a swan’ might be baffling but it would make for a fine end to a poem—as it is, the poem in question goes on from three more stanzas, diluting the effect without really taking it on elsewhere. (Similarly ‘Postcard home’ would be much stronger without the second half.) And not all reach the heights which the best ones do. (The most frustrating of these is the title poem, whose idea seems excellent but isn’t fully realised—I came away feeling that the poem hadn’t happened yet.)
But the best poems here have clarity and poise: I especially liked ‘Naming’, ‘Meditating on Cows’, ‘The Wagtail Tree’ and, for their songlike simplicity, ‘Swing song’ and ‘Poem for someone who is juggling her life’:
Be still sometimes.
Be still sometimes.
Let it all fall sometimes.
Callum Binns (Sphinx Young Reader):
First off, the production quality of this chapbook is very high, and it is pleasing to look at and hold. The paper is clearly of high quality, and the pink endpapers go well with the feel of the book as a whole. The cover illustration is beautiful and its busy, abstract style also fitted well with the overall feel of the chapbook.
I had a mixed reaction to the poems. Some made me stop and think, and move on satisfied that I had glanced a little into the mind of the poet as well as my own. However, one or two actually elicited the reaction “I’ve just wasted a part of my life that I’ll never get back.”
But in spite of that, as a whole I feel that the quality of the poetry is high, and most of the poems are imaginative and interesting, often presenting vivid, even mind-boggling images—a perfect example being this passage from the poem ‘Love may visit’, in which a real dragonfly is attracted to the paper one in the poet’s kitchen:
. . . and its muscled legs which trembled
and clung light and trusting to my skin,
then flew straight up like
an aquamarine helicopter thief.
As a collection, the poems hang together well: there isn’t running theme exactly, but together they make you feel as though you are travelling through someone’s mind, in a more in-depth way than is normal, even in a poetry collection. While this is good, it does occasionally come up with some pretty trippy results, such as the poem, ‘You don’t need to wear a fish head to feel weird’, which left me a little confused as to what the poem was actually about on the surface, let alone its underlying message.
In summary, I recommend this chapbook to someone who doesn’t mind occasionally having to crack the shell of confusing, and sometimes even annoying poems, to get to the nutty, creamy centre.