Calder Wood Press, 2009. £4.50
Reviewed by D A Prince, Emma Lee and Helena Nelson
D A Prince:
There’s a warmth and accessibility about Irene Brown’s poems that suggest she would deliver a lively reading. Her poems are not intellectual; they won’t make huge demands on concentration or stretch the listener, but they have a conversational immediacy and a cheerful good-humour that beg for live performance. Her poems are sociable: dance and movement appear throughout this pamphlet, from “the drawl of the waltz” to the “satisfying swirl of figures of eight”. Her best poem, in Scots, describes her mother and father dancing in the kitchenette ( a word that defines the period) in happy union—
as gallously perjink
as two wee jigglin lids
on bubblin pots
hardly able tae haud in the steam.
I don’t know the exact meaning of “gallously perjink” but that’s not a problem. I can imagine the angled precarious movement, and this simply adds to the gaiety of the poem. Similarly in ‘Too much information (On sitting behind some big bahoochies at a poetry reading)’ I have to build up an image of a “bahoochie” from what’s in the poem, inferred from the way jeans that “show off the sheugh o yer erse/ it’s sometin ye really shuid keep oot o sight.” I think I get the picture.
Brown is strongest in short poems, and on home ground. Longer, more obviously ambitious poems can show signs of strain as they try to capture significant details of foreign cities. They lack the precision of her glimpses of Glasgow and her observation of ordinary people having fun. My copy suffered from a printing fault and two pages in the centre were blank—a pity, because this collection has a confident, glossy appearance that suits the dance-halls evoked in these poems.
Irene Brown focuses on moments in life, showing human relationships through activity, often dancing, as the title suggests. She also uses Scots to energetic effect, evoking childhood memories in ‘The Dennistoun Baths’ where two teenagers trying to catch a bit of tan discover to their horror the showers are communal. There’s an entertaining villanelle, ‘Too Much Information’, humorously commenting on poets wearing clothing that’s overly revealing whilst waiting their turn to read.
In ‘A Threepenny Waltz’ the poem is working well up to the last line:
As the strains of Kate Martin’s waltz
wafted through the living room,
we measured our steps
on the carpet’s pattern,
dancing on a threepenny bit
like angels on a pinhead.
For me, the pinhead cliché weakens the poem. It isn’t strong enough to carry the dreams those measured steps on the patterned carpet are stepping towards.
It is very different in ‘In Aix en Provence’, when telling detail is all that’s needed as a young woman steps out of her apartment:
the technicoloured square’s animation
froze her in a frame
the only moving image
of monochromed red,
the long straight stems
of the four roses
held casually in her hand
echoing her slim limbs.
Building images and leaving readers to their own conclusions is where the poems work best. For me, the quietly spoken, ‘Rag Doll’ contained one of the strongest lines in the collection:
Weighted by sleep
yet light and still,
like an old rag doll
with its stuffing gone.
Morphed into the mattress
when the sheet is flattened
like a crease.
I like “morphed into the mattress”, an alliterative phrase with satisfying rhythm. I would have liked to have seen more of this attention to detail and care for the sound of words, not just their order on the page. Like the picture of the glass slippers on the front cover, poems can create shape and texture but the reader needs to be left to discover whether they fit.
This struck me as the sort of writing that would work well in performance to a local readership. It’s very genuine, often amusing or droll, and one senses a warm and distinctive personality behind the writing. It draws on memories that, if shared (for example ‘The Dennistoun Baths’) must surely entertain.
Irene Brown is a poet who doesn’t stand on ceremony; she just gets on and does the job. ‘Too Much Information’ shares, in villanelle form, her irreverent temptation to slip “a nicely-aimed ice cube” down the exposed “sheugh” of some fat poets’ bottoms: “that bit o yer bum shouldnae see the day’s light”. How very satisfying—for all the wrong reasons.
This doesn’t try to be great poetry. It’s mainly rolling, rollicking verse, fun to read, and occasionally more than that. ‘Rite of Passage’, for example, recalls the first taste of Wrigleys ‘Chiclets’ as an archetypal disillusionment:
My baby teeth
shattered the coating
got to the coveted gum
where the mint mixed for a moment
before it turned
to that bland, grey chuggie stuff
that bored you once the flavour had gone.
Yes, “bland, grey chuggie stuff” sums it up precisely. Brown even shares the advertising jingle for the gum (surely one of the nursery rhymes of our time):
PK chewing gum, penny penny packet
First you chew it, then you crack it
Then you stick it to your jacket
PK chewing gum, penny penny packet!
Irene Brown is good at sharing experiences which expose our common humanity. For them to work fully, I suspect you need the poet herself in performance, but even on the cold page, she is whimsical and entertaining. She can turn a nifty epigram, too. Her last piece is titled ‘Faith’, and here it is in full:
outside the Christmas market
a Communist Party stall