Koo Press, 2010 £5.00
Reviewed by David Floyd, Ross Kightly and Stephen Payne
Dirty Laundry isn’t a pleasant collection to read. This is not because it’s badly written but because it’s about unpleasant events. The pamphlet is made up of a sequence of ten poems about a mother and daughter—with the daughter observing her mother’s dysfunctional (or, perhaps, crudely functional) relationships with men, inter-linked with alcoholism and death from breast cancer following an uncompleted suicide attempt.
In terms of the subject matter, this is unremittingly grim stuff. It’s essentially a misery memoir as a sequence of poetry. In comparison with much of the rest of the sequence, mother’s relationship with a married man is a relatively conventionally disappointing affair but even before the disappointed arrives it’s suffused with impending doom:
She had moved into a bungalow, minutes from his work.
Everyday at 11, preparing herself, as if for a first date, meticulous
hair and make up, a new outfit. By 12 the table was laid
with candles and flowers. Nat King Cole waited on the stereo . . .
It’s downhill from there, ‘Earning the Housekeeping’ describes the ritual of the mother’s coupling with ‘the lodger’ in exchange for a contribution towards the housekeeping:
[ . . . ] Mother, meanwhile,
woozily opened another bottle, quoting Sidney Carton
as she prepared to swap her wine logged body for the housekeeping.
Sinclair is a good writer and Dirty Laundry is a well-executed set of descriptive poems about a life going very wrong. She employs a high level of technical skill in emphasising desperately shabby situations without detachment:
For many years a contemptuous sweep of the duster
and the vacuum cleaner skimming the ‘bits that showed’
The problem is that uncomfortably vivid (at times hyper-real) description is all there is. Mother has a miserable life; daughter has an equally miserable time observing her misery. Sinclair’s poetic skill hammers home that point effectively and consistently through the sequence but doesn’t tell us anything else. It is a collection that, as poetry, it’s easy to admire but difficult to enjoy.
I found many things about this pamphlet appealing: the confessional tone can be engaging and there is certainly some striking Grand Guignol imagery: “attempted to make appetizing his goblin’s body” . . . “coarsely coupled with his living sex doll”. The long lines are expansive, providing the narrative with space to develop.
On the other hand, things can come to feel overly intense at times, with a sort of engagement-fatigue setting in; the sort of thing that can happen when horror is piled on horror in any genre; and there’s a tendency for the thought to wander along and across lines with what seems like a lack of control, the tone can become flat and at times the rhythmic coherence of the poem seems to falter.
A major problem for me was that I found it difficult (despite several readings) to sort out who the different characters actually were in each poem—I hasten to add that this is perhaps a matter of personal obtuseness. And such a collection as this will always run the risk of producing strong negative as well as positive feelings in the reader: both of these reactions occurred for me.
This series of ten poems moves through a kitchen-sink narrative of a family: a daughter, a single-parent mum and her boyfriends, their homes, their lodgers. There’s plenty of drama, plenty to make you cringe, weep and laugh.
The poems all have a similar structure, or perhaps lack of structure, with long lines and natural, uncompressed syntax. All the poems, bar one, are presented in regular stanzas (couplets in six cases), but this seems only a loose device. Here’s the beginning of ‘Earning the Housekeeping’:
Most nights the lodger’s makeshift divan
of yellow velvet cushions, saggy and grimed
with his body’s imprint, was made up on the floor
by mother’s bed, where he guarded her like a wicked goblin.
I find the stanza break “grimed // with” a little distracting, and the break between the next two stanzas trips me up again (I suppose in this case one might want the inter-stanza enjambment to signal the long drag, but such effects will only work if the device is used sparingly):
Except pay day, when it was daughter’s job to prepare
the monstrous honeymoon suite. Dragging mother’s mattress
into the sitting room, cleared as if for a party, she flopped
its deadweight down beside the squalid sofa cushions
The line-breaks throughout are often similarly arbitrary and distracting (e.g. sound/ effects, rent/ and bills, meticulous/ hair—perhaps the intended effect is informality), to the extent that I would enjoy most of these poems more if they were presented as prose poems. I might like them still more if they were pared down: I sometimes have the impression of very promising first drafts, waiting for a blue pencil.
What’s pleasurable is that the scenes are often highly engaging (as is the situation described above, in my judgment), whether chilling and upsetting (as above), or funny, or sometimes both. Furthermore, the occasional very striking turn of phrase or image interrupts the otherwise rather documentary flow—I like, for example, the pushed car “digging in its heels”, and as an academic, reading this during the exam period, I appreciated the comparison of marking scr