Smith/Doorstop Books, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Helena Nelson, Fiona Sinclair and Anna Crowe
Christy Ducker. I remembered the name, so I must have read her poems before and noticed them. But not noticed them like I noticed this pamphlet. From the first poem onwards, I was riveted. ‘Getting Rid of the Aphids’ is about one of our modern miracles—the fact that you can order (online, in fact) ladybirds. You can buy them: it’s an organic way of getting rid of greenfly and I had forgotten this until I read this poem. The poet “pours” a kilo of ladybirds out of a sack and by the end of the day “they fall from her clothes—/ brilliant // even in darkness.” I could see this: I was there.
But each of Christy Ducker’s poems is totally different from the next. For me, reading her pamphlet was process of a continuous astonishment and delight. Her control is expert, her balance is superb, her tonal range is radical, her form and line is varied and interesting, her bold understatement is second to none. She is so good that I read and rejoiced in ‘Journey’ without noticing it was a pantoum(I tends to be allergic to line-repeating forms).
How satisfying it is to be in the hands of a poet who knows what she is doing and does it with such expertise! “The Working Woman’s Right Breast is Not Amused” sounds like it might be whimsical to the point of heavy-handed. Not in the least. It’s a monologue, in which the speaking voice wholly convinces. There’s a strong biological imperative here in fact, from ‘Nest’ (“Sit tight/ incubate flight/ sleep weather-wise”) to ‘2058’ (“You want a boy so tick Male”) to ‘And’ (“suddenly you are here/ and I am astonished/ by the way you smell of bloody bread . . . ”).
These poems are electric. I’ll end with the last few lines of ‘Elizabeth Sheds her Inhibitions’. Just see how wickedly it invites the reader in, how its sabre flashes!
.......Lastly, I rode to see the young people
.......who queue in few clothes outside night clubs.
.......It was then I came across you officer.
.......And what a fine, fine officer you are.
The title poem ‘Armour’ lies at the heart of this collection. Whilst the narrator claims in the first line much like Eliot’s Prufrock that she would “rather be a lobster,’’ thereby shielding herself from the risk of being hurt, by the end of the poem she concedes that she is hard wired to need emotional interaction whatever the cost. Much of the collection, therefore, examines the complexity of relationships with children and partners.
These poems have a knack of leading the reader up the garden path in terms of subject matter. This trick is achieved by skilfully enigmatic first lines. This is best seen in the poem ‘And’:
.......suddenly you are here
.......and I am astonished
.......by the way you smell of bloodied bread
It took me several readings to realise this startling imagery was describing a new-born child. The choice of words refreshingly contradicts more sentimental descriptions of babies. This raw and honest language is repeated throughout the poem as the mother responds to the first sight of her child, bringing an authentic tone to the emotions, for example, "I am astonished that you are purple", "your tiny chimp gums". This passing reference to chimps recurs throughout the works, serving as a reminder perhaps that we are more akin to social creatures than the solitary lobster.
Throughout the collection there is the subtle presence of a loved one in the narrator’s life. He seems a steadfast character who “always broke my fall’’, despite ‘Journey’ hinting at a wild sexual past. Yet this relationship is by no means cosy. Three poems deal specifically with the complexities and intricacies of flirting, falling in love and living together. Here the poet shows enviable technical skill by employing the rhythms and rhymes of the Fox Trot and Mamba to reinforce the tricky dance of love.
It is clear that much thought has gone into the ordering of the poems. ‘Armour’, and its realisation of the narrator’s need for human contact, leads immediately onto ‘Three Dances’, which then ends with the two poems on childbirth. In this way the pieces form a satisfying sequence.
Throughout the collection a balance is struck between concrete poems whose meaning is immediately grasped and enjoyed, such as ‘Getting Rid of the Aphids’, and the more abstract—even mythical—poems whose meaning must be worked for. These poems often deal with landscape—for example ‘The Talking Island’. The trick here is to be comfortable with ambiguity and enjoy the imagery and rhythm until meaning becomes clear with re-reading.
This attractively produced pamphlet is a winner of the 2010 Poetry Business Competition, and the poet's first collection. I enjoyed these poems enormously for their linguistic verve and sensuousness, both visual and musical, and for the way they kept taking me by surprise. Her writing is marked by exactness of description and economy of expression. We can see and hear this in the opening poem, 'Getting Rid of the Aphids', where a sack is brought into the greenhouse:
.......Once set down
.......the sack fidgets
.......until she loosens it
.......and pours out
.......one kilo of ladybirds.
I love the surprise and concision of “fidgets”, and the matter-of-fact quality of that “one kilo”. The gardener sees “stunned treasure/ hissing to a standstill”, and we relish the ambiguity of that “stunned”. We too are stunned!
Ducker is good with creatures—a lobster features in the hallucinatory world of the pre-op self—and that otherness is approached with a pleasing lack of sentimentality. 'Nest' reads like a list of instructions for the successful rearing of young swallows, and its no-nonsense imperatives make us feel the urgency of instinct, as well as the astonishing endurance of these lives—from the opening lines of “Move earth sip by sip/ up to the eaves” to the closing line, “Migrate. Return.”
Her poem 'Deer' weaves two stories of survival together, one animal, the other human, with great subtlety, and the poem is the more powerful for being mysterious. I like the balance sustained between the two survivals, where the deer come “close enough to show their lice/ teeming through fur that looks combed”, “on the day you venture out again/ all bristle and stink”.
Her frame of reference is wide. In a superb three-liner, 'Asylum Seeker', she can suggest a whole world, leaving the terrible ambiguity of the last line hovering: “In Algiers, I was an archivist of bones.” There are sexy poems that use the rhythms of dance to hilarious effect, poems that give a voice to an under-used breast, to a wall, to an island that sounds like Inner Farne. Many of these poems are irrepressibly exuberant, and celebrate the world of the child, yet the ‘armour’ of the title is what Christy Ducker's poetry sheds for our benefit, letting us feel the raw vitality and vulnerability of imagined lives.